Even before the season, we knew that much would ride on the outcome of the Auburn game. With the long history of the rivalry, the ending of last year’s game, and the stakes on the table in 2014, this game is being analyzed to death. Many of us started thinking about this game even before Florida (sigh…). Might as well throw my two cents in.
The performance of the front seven against the run is deservedly getting a lot of attention since the Florida game. That’s supposed to the the stronger and more experienced area of the defense, and it’s troubling when cracks show there. I want to talk about another element of Georgia’s run defense. If you look at the defensive stats from last year’s Auburn game, two things stand out from the tackling numbers: first, Ramik Wilson was a tackling machine with 18 total tackles to his credit. Second, two of the top four tacklers are no longer with the program. We remember Matthews and Harvey-Clemons for their error on Auburn’s final score, but those two had been key defenders against Auburn’s running game. Now the challenge falls to Georgia’s current safeties: guys like Mauger, Moore, and Sanders will have the unenviable job of providing support against what’s essentially an option running attack while remaining aware of Auburn’s ability to hit deep passes.
The scope of the challenge becomes more apparent when you look at the roster. Georgia’s largest safety is Moore, officially listed at 6’2″ and 206 lbs. Mauger is 6-0 / 199. Sanders is 6-0 / 187. Damien Swann occasionally moves into the star position, and he’s 5-11 / 180. Matthews wasn’t a huge guy at 6-0 and about 200 lbs, but he had a reputation as a big hitter. Harvey-Clemons was a hulking 6’5″ and had the size to take on bruising tailbacks. Assignments, gap discipline, and technique are first principles when defending any team, but sometimes it comes down to physics – can these guys bring down Nick Marshall (6-1 / 210) or Cameron Artis-Payne (5-11 / 210) and limit the yards after contact? Auburn is one of the nation’s leaders converting on third down because it sets up short and manageable third downs. Georgia’s tacklers must limit yardage on first and second down to set up longer third downs where the pass rush can have some impact.
Granting that Auburn is going to have some success moving the ball, the next best thing is to force them to accept three points rather than seven. The Tigers still jumped out to a big halftime lead on Georgia last year, but four Auburn drives ended with relatively short field goal attempts. Georgia blocked one of them. The other three attempts were good, but Auburn settling for those nine points kept the game from becoming a runaway and opened the door for Murray’s fourth quarter heroics. Texas A&M held Auburn to two field goal attempts in the second quarter of last week’s game, and the outcome of the second one changed the game. Auburn’s season high in field goals was three – against Mississippi State, a game Auburn lost.
Georgia’s primary storyline will be the return of Todd Gurley. That one fact leads to several questions. With the exception of the Florida game, Georgia has continued to run the ball well in Gurley’s absence. How much can he really elevate the offense beyond what we saw without him last weekend? Does the team settle into a “Todd’s got this” mentality and leave it up to him to make the plays? More practically, can Georgia’s run game have more success against this year’s Auburn defense?
Certainly this is a much different and run-oriented Georgia offense this year. Auburn won’t hold the Dawgs to 117 rushing yards again. In part because of the nature of the game (playing from behind) and in part because of Auburn’s strength up front last season, Gurley was held to 79 yards on 15 carries a season ago. He was actually about as productive in the passing game where he put up 77 yards on 10 receptions as the offense looked for a way to counter Dee Ford and Auburn’s onslaught of pressure. Gurley’s presence will give Georgia a deeper tailback rotation which, as it has several times already this season, pay dividends in the fourth quarter.
Georgia’s problems getting going on offense a year ago started on the line. The tackles struggled, as they had a habit of doing, on the road with the pressure from the outside. Runs were stuffed, and Murray was disrupted. The line is coming off of an outstanding performance at Kentucky, and the home crowd should negate most communication issues.
I still find it hard to believe a year later, but Theus claimed that intensity was a problem. “We came out a little sluggish the first half,” he said. “I think they kind of caught us by surprise. They came out with a lot of energy and they were playing really hard.” That can’t happen again this year. The crowd will take care of the energy level, but the offense must be ready to attack from the opening kickoff. They’ll also need to sustain that attack. Even with a good start, a slow quarter or two is more than enough to let Auburn back in the game or give Auburn an opening to run away with the game.
While Chubb was the big story during Gurley’s absence, the steady play of Hutson Mason wasn’t far behind. Mason has been completing passes around a 70% clip, avoiding turnovers, and reportedly has been one of the vocal leaders getting the team focused in the midst of plenty of distraction. With Gurley and the backfield likely to draw plenty of attention again, Mason will have a role and an opportunity to make plays. Mason’s poise was a big part of Georgia’s 8-for-8 on third downs at Kentucky. Sustaining drives will again be paramount for Georgia’s offense not only to set up scores but also to keep Auburn’s offense off the field. Sans Scott-Wesley, this is the most diverse and healthy set of receivers Georgia has had all season.
We should include the tailbacks when talking about receivers. We saw what Gurley can do against an Auburn defense with ten receptions in the comeback last year. Georgia used Gurley as an outlet against intense pressure, and while Auburn doesn’t have the pass rush they did a year ago, it could still be a crowded line of scrimmage with stopping the run Auburn’s first priority. Going all the way back to the Clemson and South Carolina games, remember Sony Michel split out in the slot. That’s one way to get two of the three leading tailbacks on the field at the same time, and we know Michel can be explosive at that spot either on sweeps or inside screens.
Mike Bobo has more of his options available to him than at any point in the season. I look forward to seeing how he uses them in a game that will require another high output from the offense.