ATHENS – Ah, Georgia can finally relax.
The Bulldogs (6-4, 4-4 SEC) play host to Louisiana-LaFayette (4-5, 3-3) on Saturday. The usual thought for a game like this against a lower-tier FBS opponent is it should be a chance to rest some of your starters and get healthy before the regular-season finale against Georgia Tech. But there has been nothing usual about this season.
And then there was Nicholls State.
If ever there was a cautionary tale about such out-of-conference contests, it was the Bulldogs’ Sept. 10 matchup against Nicholls. The Colonels are also a small FBS program from Louisiana and Georgia needed to convert a third down deep in its own territory to hold for a frighteningly close 26-24 win.
It’s not that the Bulldogs would overlook Saturday’s opponent without that experience, but it certainly serves as not very distant reminder to not take anybody lightly. Asked whether he expected some young backup players to get some action on Saturday, Georgia coach Kirby Smart bristled.
“That would be a disrespect, a disservice, to the University of Louisiana-Lafayette,” he said. “We’re concerned about playing our best and having our best game. Not only did they play on Thursday night (vs. Georgia Southern), so they’ve had more time to game plan, but they’ve also watched an offense, Auburn, that’s very similar to theirs. They get to watch and see what worked and what didn’t, and do something. We’re certainly concerned with them. I’m not concerned with getting the extra playing time in for the guys.”
Here’s what Georgia is thinking about as it prepares for the Ragin’ Cajuns.
SLOWING CAJUNS’ ROLL
According to Georgia linebacker Roquan Smith, the Ragin’ Cajuns not only are another hurry-up, spread offense, but they go faster than any team the Bulldogs have faced this season, including Auburn this past week. ULL has run more than 100 offensive plays in some games this season and averages 74 plays per contest.
Overall, the Cajuns average 377 yards per game with a very balanced distribution of 178 yards rushing and 199 yards passing. They are piloted by a big, talented and experienced quarterback that SEC fans will recognize. Anthony Jennings is a former starter at LSU who came to ULL this year as graduate transfer. The Marietta resident is averaging 207.4 yards total offense per game, including 183.6 passing.
The biggest challenge for the Bulldogs to stop, however, is the Cajuns’ multi-talented running back, Elijah McGuire. The 5-11, 209-pound senior is the consummate scatback who has tremendous moves and the type of talent that attracts NFL scouts to all of ULL’s outings. He enters Saturday’s game with 3,955 yards rushing and 31 touchdowns in his career. McGuire hasn’t missed any games this season but has been somewhat slowed with ankle and foot injuries. Nonetheless, he has 762 yards and 7 TDs this season.
CAJUNS’ STOUT D-LINE
Like Nicholls State two months ago, Georgia has to be concerned about being able to run the football against ULL. The Cajuns are giving up just 118.3 yards a game on the ground. They’re able to do it with a rotation of 300-pound interior defensive linemen and a pair of big and experienced tackling machines in Tre’maine Lightfoot and Otha Peters. The junior and senior inside linebackers have 152 tackles between them.
The good news for the Bulldogs is it appears they should be able to throw the football. The Cajuns are giving up 257 yards a game through the air. Meanwhile, Georgia has shown better proficiency throwing the ball in recent weeks with the continued development of freshman quarterback Jacob Eason. The Bulldogs have thrown for over 200 yards in each of the last two games and have averaged 235 yards passing over the last four games.
PROTECT BALL, WIN SPECIAL TEAMS
One glaring area of superiority for Georgia in this contest is the area of turnovers margin. The Bulldogs come in sporting a gaudy plus-5 differential with 19 turnovers gained and 14 lost. The Cajuns come in with a minus-2, though they generally take good care of the ball on their end with only 10 turnovers. Whenever major upsets are executed, it is usually because the underdog has forced a lot of turnovers, so look for the Bulldogs to be especially conscious of taking care of the football.
Likewise, special teams breakdowns can be a real equalizer for an overmatched opponent. The Bulldogs have settled down considerably in kicking game in recent weeks. That’s been helped by the emergence of redshirt walkon Rodrigo Blankenship at place-kicker. Blankenship has made 10 field goals with just one miss over the last four games. He’s also improved dramatically in his ability to put the ball in the end zone on kickoffs. That will be especially important against ULL’s Raymond Calais, dangerous return man averaging 21.9 yards on kickoffs.