ATHENS — On the schedule at the outset of the season, it looked like a little ol’ practice game. Georgia was going to play Georgia Southern in their semiannual tilt the week before the finale against Georgia Tech, same as it usually does. Good chance to brush up on defending the triple-option while getting some young guys some PT.
That was then. Now as it is upon us, Saturday’s game against the Eagles looks a treacherous minefield of potential disaster.
As kickoff approaches, the Bulldogs have gone from a three-score favorite to less than two touchdowns. And after a disastrous month of October, every game now looks like a referendum for coach Mark Richt and his staff. Never mind that these guys are actually defending champions of an FBS conference.
“They’re very dangerous, period,” Richt said this week. “I’d prefer not to play them; they’re that good. I think it’s good that we do play them, when you look at the big picture. But they’re a very dangerous team.”
Georgia Southern has always been that. The offspring program of legendary Georgia defensive coordinator Erk Russell, the Eagles ran roughshod over I-AA and FCS opponents for decades, winning six national championships and countless conference titles. And now that the program moved up to FBS last year, it has continued to use the late Russell’s formula of option offense and tenacious defense to great effect.
The Eagles (7-2) enter Sanford Stadium for their sixth meeting against state’s preeminent program as defending Sun Belt Conference champions. They won that league in their first year in it under first-year coach Willie Fritz.
More importantly, they come in completely un-intimidated and laser-focused on making the kind of statement many of the players on this team did two years ago when they knocked off Florida 26-20 in Gainesville.
“We don’t talk about upset or whatever,” Fritz said this week. “We put in the same exact preparation for this game as we did last week (before beating Troy 45-10). I think the game will hype itself for the players. I’m not naive enough to think it wouldn’t.”
Georgia Southern does extremely well the one thing most constructive toward building an upset — run the football. The Eagles lead the nation in rushing offense with an average of 378.9 yards per game. They average 443 yards and 37.4 points overall.
They’ve had only one other Power 5-opponent encounter this season, losing 44-0 to West Virginia 44-0 in the season opener. But that came with quarterback Kevin Ellison under suspension. He was the one piloting Georgia Southern as a freshman when it knocked off the Gators two years ago, and Eagles’ rushing attack is problematic for everybody they’ve face since his return in the third game.
In warning Crimson Tide fans about their game Saturday against Charleston Southern, Alabama coach Nick Saban reminded them of their 2011 matchup with Georgia Southern in which the Eagles “ran through us like (expletive) through a tin horn.” They had 302 yards on the ground against Bama that day.
“It’s old football to me,” Georgia outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins said. “It’s what I grew up playing against, what I grew up playing. It’s back to the basics for me this week. Some of the stuff they do is similar to Auburn. It’s pretty much the same couple offenses we’re gonna play over the next week. But we’re gonna play with the same intensity we did the last couple games. We’ve gotta play with the same mindset.”
Georgia’s defense is in the midst of a good run. The Bulldogs gave up just 275 total yards to Auburn but 213 of that was via the rush. Neither Kentucky (180) nor Missouri (164) could manage even 200 total yards against them. They’re ranked eighth in the SEC against the run (139.6 ypg).
it might be an even more important game for Georgia’s offense. The Bulldogs in the last few weeks have been short on yards and points but long on time of possession as they have deliberately slowed the pace and are content with grinding it out.
“It kind of allows us to communicate a little bit better, whether it’s the play or shifts and motions,” said quarterback Greyson Lambert, who seems to have settled in as Georgia’s starting quarterback. “There is nobody who can’t not see a signal and blame something on that. We’re all in the huddle and communicating that way. It also allows us to change the cadence a little bit so the defense can’t time it up.”
As much as anything, the Bulldogs will have to be guarded against distraction. Saturday is Senior Night 30 players and Que is being “collared” the new Uga mascot in pregame ceremonies and many UGA’s students will likely have hit the road home on the first weekend of Thanksgiving break. Meanwhile, the annual hate-fest against Georgia’s traditional in-state rival awaits the following week.
The Bulldogs must be vigilant and make sure that Georgia Southern gets their total attention.
“They would love to knock us off,” senior tight end Jay Rome said. “Like I say all the time, ‘it’s a game and every game is an important game.’ … They are definitely a really, really good football team whether people know it or not. They are not scared and going to come in here and play really well. We just have to be prepared for them.”