ATHENS — Nick Chubb is hurt again. Sony Michel is averaging 35 yards rushing per game. Elijah Holyfield got his first action of the season in garbage time Saturday against Ole Miss. Georgia ranks eighth in the SEC at 4.5 yards per rush.
Is there no hope for the Bulldogs and their vaunted ground game? Does this spell doom for the Dogs?
UGA insists neither is the case. But, suffice it to say, the Bulldogs need to get their run game — and their offense overall – cranked up before No. 11 Tennessee (4-0, 1-0 SEC) arrives Saturday. No. 25 Georgia (3-1, 1-1) enters that contest ranked 10th in the SEC in scoring (25.2 ppg) and ninth in total offense (413). And that’s before meeting the Vols, who will bring to Sanford Stadium the best defense the Bulldogs have faced.
“I still think that we’re going to be able to run the ball,” said senior tailback Brendan Douglas, who has gained only 28 yards rushing this season. “We had a rough game this past weekend, but I felt we were still moving the ball well at times. I feel like there’s some improvement to make and guys will learn from it, but I think we’ll just keep getting better as the season goes on.”
They better. The Bulldogs pointed to Saturday’s game as proof they’re making progress. Georgia had 230 yards on the ground in the 45-14 loss to the Rebels. That was the most since logging 289 in the season opener against North Carolina.
But most of those yards Saturday came in the final 21 minutes after falling behind 45-0. Freshman Brian Herrien led UGA with 78 yards on 11 carries, all in that window. Holyfield came off the bench to add 27 on four attempts, all in the fourth quarter.
Georgia gained 93 yards in the first half, which represented a slight improvement. Then Chubb left the game with a left-ankle injury. He had 57 yards on 12 carries at the time. He did not practice Monday, and his status remains uncertain.
Meanwhile, the Bulldogs’ offensive line continues to be overwhelmed at the point of attack. Ole Miss had five tackles for loss in the game, and Georgia’s backs continually were hit in the backfield.
Georgia has succeeded in the run game in the past without dominant offensive line play. The Bulldogs averaged 227 yards rushing over the past two seasons with an offensive line generally considered moderate in overall talent. But Mark Richt’s teams utilized a zone-blocking scheme that required less one-on-one matchups.
Head coach Kirby Smart’s employs more of a road-grading philosophy. He was asked if UGA’s offensive line deficiencies were something that can be schemed around.
“I think it’s hard to scheme around fundamentals of football,” Smart said. “I think blocking and tackling are the No. 1 things that you have to be able to do in football. … We’ve got to be able to block really well. That’s important. That’s a key cog in order to be able to run the ball.”
Again, Smart insisted he saw improvement Saturday.
“It was all the other areas that imploded on us,” he said. “You don’t cover that up; you confront it. You go get better at it. You practice it. You go against really good people. You play physical; you practice physical; you live physical. That’s the way you improve with the guys you’ve got.”
Tennessee ranks eighth in the SEC against the run, allowing 141 yards per game. But the Volunteers feature one of the more athletic defensive fronts Georgia has faced to date. They rotate four 300-pound linemen at the two inside positions and feature one of the SEC’s better ends in 6-foot-3, 265-pound junior Derek Barnett.
“It’s something we’re working on every week,” senior offensive tackle Tyler Catalina said. “It’s something we’re going to have to correct and find out where we’re messing up. We get a little tired and lack on our fundamentals. We’re just going to have to get back on that and work on it during the week.”
That’s the primary refrain you’ll hear in the Bulldogs’ camp: “We’re working on it.”
“You watch film, you see your mistakes, you correct them,” Michel said following Saturday’s loss. “It’s not as much about what they did as what we did. We’ll watch film and correct our mistakes.”
If the Bulldogs are to have any shot against Tennessee, they must.