The Bulldog offense made history in September for its streak of games scoring 40+ points, but they haven’t reached that mark in four games. Things got back on track against Ole Miss as Georgia’s offense had one of its more balanced and productive games in over a month. It won’t be quite the same offense that Georgia takes into the final three games of the regular season. Here’s what’s changed and what might change over the next couple of weeks.
Georgia’s outstanding freshman tailback duo took the conference by storm in September. The tandem combined for 964 yards during the month with Marshall contributing well over 40% of the total. The “Gurshall” meme was established. No one ran particularly well at South Carolina or Kentucky, but Gurley has bounced back with consecutive games with at least 100 yards.
Marshall’s production continues to lag though. He averaged an incredible 8.2 yards per carry in September, and it would be tough for anyone to sustain that pace. It wasn’t all the Tennessee game either – Marshall averaged at least 4 YPC in each September game other than Missouri. But since Tennessee, Marshall hasn’t had a 4 YPC game. Over the past four games Marshall has had 33 carries for 92 yards – a 2.48 YPC average.
The difference has largely come from a lack of big plays. Marshall has never had more than 10-12 carries a game. His carries tailed off against Kentucky and Florida, but he was right back there with 11 carries against Ole Miss. During the stretch from Florida Atlantic through Tennessee, Marshall ripped off gains of 28, 52, 75, and 72 yards. Since Tennessee he hasn’t had a run longer than nine yards.
Whether it’s blocking, defensive adjustments, or just a regression to the mean, the disappearing big play changes Georgia’s running game, and it’s seen Gurshall give way to Gurley. With Kentucky stacking the line and Florida’s stout run defense, the more physical Gurley was the choice to pound at those defenses. Marshall’s skills in space aren’t going to be as effective when a defense throws additional numbers at the line of scrimmage.
It’s reasonable that Georgia’s remaining opponents will place an emphasis on stopping the run. Georgia has lost some punch at receiver, and I could see defenses taking their chances to put Murray in longer-yardage situations with a diminished receiving corps.
The loss of Marlon Brown on top of the earlier season-ending injury to Michael Bennett leaves Georgia without two productive receivers and relatively thin at the position. King and Mitchell are set as starters, and we know what they can do. It’s difficult not only to replace Brown’s production, but Brown’s size also gave him advantages with blocking and matching up against coverage. The Dawgs will look first to a couple of known reserves. Chris Conley has had his moments during his first two seasons, but he’ll be more than a situational guy now. Rantavious Wooten is playing with more confidence and has particular skill catching the deep ball. Next on the list is Rhett McGowan who’s made some nice catches when called on. Speedy redshirt freshman Justin Scott-Wesley will also see more time.
The two remaining starters will have to carry most of the load though. Mitchell is already just one catch off the team lead despite devoting the first month of the season to defense. Since Tennessee Mitchell has at least three receptions per game. Tavarres King must become more consistent. As a senior starter, King’s reliability is that much more important now. He’s had two big games: 6 catches for 117 yards and a TD against Buffalo and a spectacular 9 catches for 188 yards and 2 TD at Kentucky. But King has had two or fewer receptions in six of Georgia’s nine games. The Kentucky game is an outlier during a stretch in which King had a total of two receptions against South Carolina, Florida, and Ole Miss. King still leads Georgia in receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns, but Georgia needs him to come up big in each of the final three games.
One takeaway from the Ole Miss game was the noticeable difference in Aaron Murray’s decisions. 11 different players recorded a reception. Nine of Murray’s 21 completions went to backs or tight ends. He rarely forced the ball even in the face of early heavy pressure and a shaky line. As a result, Murray had no turnovers and completed 75% of his passes. Of course doing that against the Ole Miss defense is not the same as doing it with Matt Elam prowling the secondary, but many of those same alternatives to forcing bad passes were available to Murray against Florida. If the distribution of passes against Ole Miss continues, it will help loosen the coverage on the remaining receivers and slow aggressive defenses looking to stop the run.
After a nice outing against Florida in which Aaron Murray wasn’t sacked, the offensive line took a step back against Ole Miss. Gurley still got his 100, but Georgia’s 149 yards on the ground were only an average performance against the Ole Miss rushing defense. Pass protection, especially at tackle, was worse. Protection issues were a big reason why Georgia’s first half success was basically limited to a trick play and a 40-yard heave at the buzzer (after Murray had to scramble away from still more pressure).
The line might also face some adjustments due to injury. Starting guard Chris Burnette is questionable after a shoulder contusion last weekend. The Dawgs might go to a lineup they’ve used a few times this year when Mark Beard comes in at left tackle and Kenarious Gates moves to a guard position. Usually Gates has been replacing Dallas Lee at left guard, and it’s uncertain whether Georgia would continue to plug Gates in at left guard and move Lee to Burnette’s spot or keep Lee where he is and move Gates to right guard.
One of the more interesting matchups in the Auburn game will be Georgia tackles against outstanding defensive end Corey Lemonier. Almost everyone has trouble against Clowney, but even Ole Miss found ways to create problems off the edge. Lemonier doesn’t need much help to create problems. We’re more than familiar with Brian VanGorder’s aggressive style, so expect him to test Georgia’s protection right out of the gate – especially if Georgia has to shuffle its usual starting line.