- David Ching, ESPN Staff Writer
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ATHENS, Ga. -- With new coordinator Cam Cameron in charge, LSU's offense this season is more diverse than it has been in several years -- and yet the overriding philosophy remains the same.
“If we don't slow down the run game,” Georgia coach Mark Richt told a caller on his Monday night radio show, “it's going to be a long day for Georgia.”
When Richt's Bulldogs last faced LSU -- in the 2011 SEC championship game -- LSU completed only five passes for a total of 30 yards, but the Tigers' stable of running backs combined for 207 yards and three touchdowns in a 42-10 victory.
Their pound-the-rock strategy was in place last season, as well, with quarterback Zach Mettenberger's 12 touchdown passes tying for the fewest among regular starters in the SEC and the Tigers relying on Jeremy Hill and the other tailbacks to make their offense go.
“Ain't no trickery, ain't no razzle-dazzle,” Georgia defensive lineman Garrison Smith said. “It's just all about playing the best you can and seeing who's going to make the fewest mistakes.”
On the occasions where that physical approach wasn't enough, LSU's offense bogged down, with the Tigers ranking 10th in the SEC in total offense (374.2 yards per game) and 11th in passing (200.5 ypg). LSU's defense was as imposing as ever, but its lack of offensive creativity was a clear liability.
Enter former NFL coordinator Cameron, who still leans heavily on Hill and the running game, but has helped Mettenberger (1,026 passing yards, 10 TDs, one interception through four games) rank among the nation's most improved quarterbacks. The senior is eighth nationally with an 88.3 Total QBR, up substantially from his dismal 47.1 rating a season ago.
“Sometimes a guy has a coach that may have a tremendous scheme, but doesn't really have a feel for how to handle your quarterback. You better handle him properly,” Richt said. “Cam's been doing that forever, and he's been doing it at all levels of ball. I'm just very impressed with what he's doing.”
It helps that Mettenberger has two impressive receivers at his disposal in Odell Beckham Jr. (third in the SEC with 97.2 receiving ypg) and Jarvis Landry (fourth, 91.0) -- a duo who make it difficult for an opponent to sell out to stop the run. And Mettenberger's continued development -- he's completing 64.8 percent of his passes and averaging 11.28 yards per attempt compared to 58.8 and 7.4 in 2012 -- makes LSU even more of a test at all levels of a defense.
“[Georgia, LSU and Alabama] run the ball very well, and I think that's what opened up the downfield passing game,” Georgia cornerback Damian Swann said. “Because once you're done trying to stack the box on a team that can throw the ball like [Georgia's Aaron] Murray can, like [Alabama's AJ] McCarron can, like Zach can, that's when people beat you.”
Nonetheless, the Bulldogs know that their defense won't have a prayer on Saturday if it fails to match LSU's physicality up front.
Slowing down the Tigers' running game remains every opposing defense's first objective, but it is not a particularly easy goal to accomplish. Auburn certainly knew Hill was the top player it had to stop last Saturday and LSU's bellcow back still rolled up 184 yards and three touchdowns in a 35-21 win.
Neutralizing LSU's running game will be the Bulldogs' first objective on Saturday, coming off an impressive performance against North Texas where Georgia allowed the Mean Green to accumulate just 7 rushing yards on 25 attempts. It's a difficult goal to meet, but if they can pull it off, the Bulldogs' chances of victory increase exponentially.
“That's just the style of football that they play with Les Miles being an offensive guy, and that's how he likes to run it” Swann said. “He's going to line it up and run it at you. You just have to prepare for it.
“You have to tackle well, you have to play your gaps well -- everything has to be fundamentally sound because it's not going to be no trickeration going on. It's going to be line up, smashmouth football. You have to be ready for that.”