ATHENS, Ga. -- While it might seem odd to criticize an offensive line that helped Georgia generate 545 yards -- on the road in one of the louder stadiums the Bulldogs will visit this season, no less -- it is clear that offensive line coach Will Friend has not settled on a lineup that he loves after Saturday’s 38-35 loss to Clemson.
With Jadeveon Clowney and South Carolina’s fearsome defensive front on deck Saturday, that is not a particularly encouraging sign for the Bulldogs. But Georgia’s linemen realize they can’t allow themselves to think that way.
“If you take that aspect of it, then you’re just going to psyche yourself out,” said offensive tackle Kolton Houston, who started his first college game at right tackle on Saturday. “You’ve got to give him credit. I mean Clowney’s definitely one of the best players there is, but at the end of the day, you’ve just got to treat it like any other guy.”
Such a philosophy might not be particularly useful for Georgia’s coaching staff, which knows it must frequently commit more than one blocker to Clowney -- a player widely viewed as one of the top pro prospects in college football.
Clowney got off to an unimpressive start in last Thursday’s win against North Carolina, but he has made his impression felt in two games against Georgia to date.
As a freshman in 2011, he twice sacked Bulldogs quarterback Aaron Murray and forced Murray into a fumble that teammate Melvin Ingram recovered for the win-clinching touchdown late in a 45-42 South Carolina victory. Last season, Clowney had two tackles for a loss and a sack as the Gamecocks harassed Murray into the lowest single-game QBR (8.4, when his season average was 78.2, 13th-best in the nation) of his college career.
“Whatever happened last year is last year,” said Georgia’s Kenarious Gates, who struggled mightily against Clowney a season ago. “The thing about me is I learned to move on and focus on what’s ahead of me.”
What’s ahead is a chance for redemption, not just for Gates, but for an entire offensive line that turned in an embarrassing effort in last season’s 35-7 loss to the Gamecocks. But it’s unclear who will line up on the edge to defend against Clowney, Chaz Sutton and South Carolina’s other pass rushers.
Friend experimented with several lineups in Saturday’s opener, to mixed results at best. While Georgia generated more first downs, rushing yards and passing yards, averaged more yards per play and led in time of possession, the line also committed a handful of costly penalties and surrendered four sacks -- more than in any game last year except one, when they allowed five to Ole Miss.
Three of those sacks came in the second quarter, when Clemson’s defense put the clamps on a Georgia offense that moved the ball at will early in the game. Tigers defensive end Vic Beasley zipped around flailing left tackle Gates on one third-down rush to nearly decapitate Murray with a vicious blind-side blow that forced a punt.
On Georgia’s next possession, Stephone Anthony got around right tackle Houston and knocked the ball away from Murray at the Bulldogs’ 20-yard line, forcing a fumble that Clemson’s Spencer Shuey recovered at the 16 to set up a short touchdown drive.
And on the final possession of the first half, Tavaris Barnes blew past Houston -- now playing left tackle -- to take down Murray near midfield and short-circuit Georgia’s attempt to drive for the go-ahead points just before halftime.
Clemson added one more sack on Georgia’s first possession of the second half and the Bulldogs otherwise kept Murray upright. Some key damage had already been done, however, and Georgia’s offense never regained its early momentum.
“We definitely had our ups and downs, but at the end of the day it’s a loss and Aaron got his jersey dirty,” Houston said.
Gates lost weight in the offseason, partially out of a desire to be quicker on his feet so he could more easily contend with speed rushers like Beasley and Clowney.
“I felt like that would make me a better player -- lighter on my feet and quicker and it’s lighter on my knees, as well,” Gates said last week. “I feel like doing it for me, doing it for the team, it would make me a more athletic player. I want to be that guy, and overall it’s been helpful.”
Clowney presents the biggest challenge of the season for Georgia’s pass protectors, though, and it seems unlikely that Friend and Bulldogs offensive coordinator Mike Bobo will make one player responsible for the Gamecocks star. Count on Georgia to devote tight ends and running backs to Clowney’s side, as well, to assist the tackles against the player who totaled 23.5 tackles for a loss and 13 sacks a season ago.
And as Bulldogs coach Mark Richt pointed out, the Bulldogs will also enjoy the benefit of playing at home, unlike in Saturday’s loss. Georgia relied on silent snap counts because of the noise present in Death Valley, but the friendly confines of Sanford Stadium will allow the Bulldogs to vary their cadences and prevent Clowney and company from jumping the snap count so easily.
“I think the times we got beat in my opinion, we just got beat off the snap,” Richt said. “We’ll have our cadence next week and that will help. If we were at South Carolina, it would be a little bit tougher, but I think it will help when we get off on the cadence.”