ATHENS, Ga. -- Georgia’s offensive line has exceeded reasonable expectations to this point, clearing the way for the Bulldogs’ skill players to post eye-popping point totals each week.
But they haven’t played a defense like South Carolina’s yet -- so they realize their biggest test will arrive Saturday night in Columbia, S.C.
“This game will definitely be the best gauge,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said of a Gamecocks defense that ranks second in the SEC with 11.2 points allowed per game. “South Carolina’s defense is playing great. They’re not playing good, they’re playing great. They’re kind of used to playing great.”
Of particular concern for the Bulldogs will be a pair of rangy defensive ends -- 6-foot-8 Devin Taylor and 6-6 Jadeveon Clowney -- with a reputation for wreaking havoc in opponents’ backfields. Clowney -- who has 5.5 sacks and 9.5 tackles for a loss in five games -- made one of the biggest plays in last season’s win against Georgia when he sacked quarterback Aaron Murray for a big loss and forced a fumble that Melvin Ingram recovered and carried in for a late touchdown.
“We’ve got to try to neutralize that with sliding protection to [Clowney], tight end on him, chipping him -- it’s what everybody else does,” Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said. “It’s going to be a challenge and the guy’s going to make some plays. There’s no doubt about it. Both of them are. And when he does, we’ve got to protect the ball.”
The offensive linemen also realize they must attack the Gamecocks duo, as getting up in their faces will make it hard for them to deflect passes from Georgia’s 6-1 quarterback Murray. But that’s a tough assignment, particularly against a player who is as quick as Clowney.
“The more space we give them, the easier it is for them to jump up and try to bat those balls down,” offensive guard Chris Burnette said. “A lot of people think pass blocking is passive, but we want to try to stay aggressive to an extent, where we can stay on them and not allow them to bat those balls with their long arms.”
Believe the hype: Although Georgia finished last season as the SEC East champion, slow starts in each of the previous two years largely prevented the Bulldogs from being a top choice among TV networks for midseason marquee games.
This week’s game against South Carolina in many ways marks Georgia’s return to the big stage, as it’s the first time that ESPN College GameDay has been on-site for a regular-season Bulldogs game since 2008 and the first time both the Bulldogs and their opponent have been ranked in the top 10 since Nov. 1, 2008, when the eighth-ranked Bulldogs lost 49-10 to No. 5 Florida.
The Georgia program went through some rocky moments in the interim, so Richt is pleased to be back on the national radar at this point.
“It’s nice to be in the middle of the college football world. A couple of years ago when we were 6-7, it wasn’t very long into that season where no one really cared what Georgia did on any given Saturday. It’s not a lot of fun, it’s not where you want to be,” Richt said. “Last year we kind of got enough rolling where we got a chance to play in some big games and we got to start playing sometime other than noon, and that was nice.
“Now we are in position where everybody is going to know what goes on this weekend. Everybody is kind of curious. Everybody is talking about it. That’s good. We can’t focus on it, but that’s a good place to be.”
Five-wide life: Murray estimated that Georgia ran five or six plays out of five-receiver sets against Tennessee, which is a completely different approach for an offense that trended toward the conservative side in past seasons.
“I don’t think anyone in Georgia history has ever seen that before, to have that kind of talent,” Murray said. “I remember we got in the meeting room last week and Coach Bobo went up to the board, I think it was Monday or Tuesday, and went to the board and just wrote up a formation and had 17, 15, 82, 12 and 26 [the jersey numbers of Rantavious Wooten, Marlon Brown, Michael Bennett, Tavarres King and Malcolm Mitchell] on the board.
“I’m like, ‘What is that? Is that the depth chart for this week?’ He was like, ‘No this is our new formation for the week.’ I was just like, ‘Oh my goodness.’ I don’t really know a team that can cover all five of those guys at once, especially the way they’re playing right now.”
That’s exactly what Bobo was aiming for -- and the five-wide formation produced a 32-yard touchdown pass to Bennett in the third quarter and another third-down conversion.
“We just felt like that gave us some personnel matchups against those guys. They do a lot of stuff on defense and try to disguise it and if you go five wides, you can kind of see what they’re trying to do defensively, so that was the reason for that. Usually I like to play with a tight end on the field.”
And the tight ends like to play, too. So needless to say, that new formation wasn’t so popular among some of Bobo’s charges.
“[Murray] got excited and all the receivers got excited and the tight ends, they stuck their lips out,” Bobo joked of when he introduced the formation. “But I think we’ve got a good football team that’s an unselfish team and I think that’s where you see us having success is because guys are not selfish and they really don’t care who catches the ball or runs the ball as long as we move the ball.”