ATHENS – Sterling Bailey made the expression one usually makes when they hear a stat that doesn’t make sense to them. His Georgia defense, he was told, ranks eighth in the SEC in stopping the run.
It seems better than that, though, right?
“Stats are stats,” Bailey said. “But personally I feel like as a defense we’re able to stop the run.”
In a week in which doing so will be critical – Auburn’s offense is predicated on power running – the good news for Georgia is that Bailey is right.
Yes, the Bulldogs rank in the bottom half in the SEC in rushing yards allowed (131.44 per game). But a closer look at the numbers shows a better story.
For one thing, there’s a large gap – 30 rushing yards per game – between No. 8 and No. 9 (Tennessee) on the list. The gap is closer in the other direction: The SEC’s fifth-best run defense, Missouri, is only yielding 10 less rushing yards per game.
Sacks are also included in run yardage, and that hurts Georgia, as its sack yardage (93 lost yards for opponents) is the third-least in the SEC.
Opponents have converted just 50 percent of the time on third-and-short, according to cfbstats.com, and averaging just 2.91 yards per carry in the first quarter. (It balloons to 4.56 in the fourth quarter.)
Georgia’s two worst games against the run this year were against Florida (which got 60 of its 258 rushing yards on one fourth-quarter carry) and Tennessee (where quarterback Joshua Dobbs ran and scrambled for 118 of Tennessee’s 223 yards).
Those numbers count, obviously. But by and large when other teams have tried to run the ball with their tailbacks, Georgia’s defense has been stout. Even Alabama averaged less than its season average for yards-per-carry: Four yards against Georgia, 4.53 for the season.
“I think overall we’ve been pretty good, and we’re gonna keep getting better,” Georgia inside linebacker Jake Ganus said. “But run defense is more of an attitude. I think we’re getting there. We’ve still got a lot of young guys everywhere. But as a defense I think we’re starting to come together and really get it.”
Ganus has helped the key the front seven, leading the team in tackles, with fellow inside linebacker Tim Kimbrough second. The defensive line, a committee of seniors (like Bailey) and freshman (like Trent Thompson) has also been stout up the middle. Cornerback Malkom Parrish has been made open-field tackles all season long, while outside linebackers Leonard Floyd and Davin Bellamy have come on lately.
“Our effort is really there when you turn on the film,” Bailey said. “Everybody is really going after the ball.”
They’ll have to do that against Auburn, which should also be a better running team than its season rank of sixth in the SEC in rushing yards. Tailback Jovon Robinson, newly installed as the starter, had 159 rushing yards and a touchdown at Texas A&M, and Auburn racked up a total of 311 rushing yards in an upset win.
Georgia has also been pretty stout against traditional running attacks. But Auburn’s is not traditional,and if Jeremy Johnson is the starting quarter then that’s another headache, as running quarterbacks have given Georgia problems. There was Dobbs, and Florida’s Treon Harris extended plays with his feet to create long passing plays.
“They do a lot of different things. They give you a lot of different looks to try to confuse you,” Ganus said. “Malzahn has really kind of perfected that offense, in a way. He does a great job of using different playmakers, at receiver, at getting them the ball. Sweeps and all sorts of stuff. So for us we just really need to be focused, and know your assignment, and know what can hurt you at all times.”
Georgia coach Mark Richt said it will come down to pure physical play if his defense can stop Auburn’s runs.
“Somebody’s gotta defeat a block,” Richt said. “The reality is they’re going to have a hat, a blocker, for just about every blocker in the box, if you keep a safety deep. … So somebody’s gotta whip a block. We use the term: You can’t go one-for-one on a block because they’ll run all day. So somebody’s gotta win.”