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Post Ole Miss and the running game

Thursday September 28, 2006

It’s not quite the seven seasons that elapsed between games against Mississippi State, but it has been a while since Georgia has played Ole Miss. For several years, Ole Miss was Georgia’s other "permanent" opponent from the SEC West (along with Auburn of course). When the SEC switched to two rotating opponents from the opposite division in 2003, the Ole Miss game was the casualty. The Dawgs played the Rebels every year from 1966 through 2002, but they haven’t faced off since.

The Dawgs took the last three games in the series by a comfortable 98-46 margin, but the last meeting in 2002 was a back-and-forth game until the end. A young Eli Manning was held to 12-of-25 passing and was intercepted twice, one of which was returned for a touchdown by Tim Jennings. The teams traded scores until a Terrence Edwards touchdown gave the Dawgs some breathing room at 31-17 in the third quarter. Musa Smith carried the ball 37 times for 148 yards (yes! in the Mark Richt era!) and the game ended with a 19-play Georgia drive that took over eleven minutes before the clock ran out with the ball inside the Ole Miss ten yard line.

Though the Dawgs won fairly easily from 2000-2002, the 1990s were a different story. From 1993 to 1999, the Dawgs were just 4-3 against Ole Miss, and the Rebels owned the mid-90s. It began with a 31-14 drubbing in 1993 where the Rebel defense teed off on Eric Zeier all night. Ole Miss won consecutive games in 1995 and 1996. In the 1995 game, Georgia (already minus tailback Robert Edwards) lost quarterback Mike Bobo for the season. In 1996, the Rebels caught the Dawgs coming off that dramatic four-overtime win at Auburn. The Dawgs even led 27-17 before collapsing and losing the game 31-27. Georgia rebounded to win from 1997-1999, but no win was by more than seven points.

No game during that stretch was more gut-wrenching than the 1999 trip to Oxford. Ole Miss had the one-two punch of Joe Gunn and future NFL star Deuce McAllister in the backfield. Georgia was in the middle of a wild season that would see escapes against Central Florida, LSU, and Vanderbilt, a circus finish at Tech, a thorough beating by Auburn, and an historic bowl comeback. So in the scheme of the 1999 season, the turn of events in the 1999 Georgia – Ole Miss game in Oxford was just another chapter in an inexplicable season.

The story of the game was Georgia’s inability to convert yardage into points. Though the Dawgs generated over 450 yards of offense on the night, early in the fourth quarter they only had nine points on three Hap Hines field goals. Ole Miss was on the short end of yardage and possession all night, but they took control of the game late when McAllister went 84 yards to put the Rebels up 17-9. Georgia responded with a 12-play, 80-yard drive that ended with a 4th-and-goal touchdown pass from the 3 and a subsequent two-point conversion to tie the game. Hines kicked a 48-yard field goal, his fourth of the night, with about five minutes left to give Georgia the 20-17 lead. Two big plays put the Rebels inside the Georgia 20 with a chance to tie or take the lead, but Terreal Bierria made an incredible catch for an intereception to seal the win. Par for the course in 1999.

The running game has been a big part of the story in recent seasons. In that 1999 game, McAllister and Gunn each rushed for over 100 yards. In 2001, the Ole Miss game was the start of the brief but incredibly productive experiment of Verron Haynes at tailback. Haynes’ 192 yards in Oxford was the start of a four-game stretch to end the season with at least 100 yards in each game. Musa Smith also used the Ole Miss game in 2002 (37 carries for 148 yards) as the starting point for a strong finish to his Georgia career.

The running game is once again front and center as the two teams resume the series. As QB Brent Schaeffer struggles, the burden of Ole Miss’s offense falls on tailback BenJarvus Green-Ellis. Green-Ellis had a nice debut with 127 yards and two touchdowns in the season opener against Memphis. He’s kept it up even as the passing game struggles, rushing for 4.6 yards per carry on the season.

On the other side, Georgia’s running game gets a chance to show something – anything – against a poor defense. The Rebels are giving up nearly 175 yards per game on the ground. So long as the Dawgs steer clear of talented linebacker Patrick Willis, Georgia won’t get a much better chance this season for a productive day on the ground. The Dawgs have shaken things up by moving Kregg Lumpkin into the starting tailback role, but we’ll have to see what that will mean in terms of carries and the rotation of the other backs. Richt had no problem letting a productive back run early and often on Ole Miss in 2001 and 2002. In 2006, will Lumpkin be the next Georgia back to emerge against the Rebels, and will Richt (and the offensive line) present him with that opportunity?

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