Georgia Bulldogs: Rod McDowell

Five things: Georgia-LSU

September, 28, 2013
9/28/13
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No. 9 Georgia's grueling first month of the season ends today, but not before the Bulldogs (2-1, 1-0 SEC) host No. 6 LSU (4-0, 1-0) at Sanford Stadium – Georgia's third matchup against a top-10 team in its first four games. Let's take a look at five things to watch today, with a statistical assist from ESPN's Stats and Information group:

Special teams impact: After at least one special teams blunder in its first three games – including two that led to touchdowns last week against North Texas – Georgia can't feel good about its matchup this week. LSU has had the nation's best special teams units for the past five years, according to ESPN Stats and Info. Between 2008 to 2012, LSU's special teams were responsible for 3.2 expected points added per game – the best in the nation and well ahead of second-place Florida State's 2.6 EPA. After failing to contain Tyrann Mathieu in the teams' last meeting, Georgia must keep explosive Tigers return man Odell Beckham Jr. under wraps today.

Getting after Mettenberger: LSU's second-year quarterback Zach Mettenberger has been more than impressive thus far, with his 49-point increase in Total QBR (from 39.3 to an SEC-high 88.3) helping him rank as the nation's most improved quarterback this season. Georgia will no doubt try to pressure Mettenberger – a former Bulldog who was dismissed during the 2010 offseason following an arrest – into mistakes in his first true road game of the season. Last fall, Mettenberger never posted an above average (above 50) QBR in any of his four conference road games, was sacked at least twice in each game and never completed more than 56 percent of his passes.

Can Dawgs get deep?: Over the past two seasons, Georgia's offense has been as good as any at generating explosive plays. Bulldogs quarterback Aaron Murray has averaged an FBS-high 10.5 yards per pass attempt since the start of last season, with the most touchdowns (24) and second-most completions (78) of at least 20 yards during that period. He's 12-for-19 on throws of 15 yards or more this season, including a 98-yard touchdown pass to Reggie Davis last week. But LSU's defense has been outstanding against the long ball thus far. Tigers opponents are just 6-for-25 on passes of 15 yards or more and no opponent has completed more than two such passes in a game thus far. Auburn went 2-for-10 with two interceptions on throws of 15-plus last week against LSU.

Handling Tigers' run: LSU's running game has started to find its stride in recent weeks, rolling up 307 yards against Kent State and 228 last week against Auburn. Tigers tailback Jeremy Hill led the way against Auburn with 183 yards and three touchdowns and will be the most physical test yet for a rebuilt Georgia run defense that allowed 132 yards to Clemson's Rod McDowell and 149 to South Carolina's Mike Davis the next week. The Bulldogs improved significantly against the run versus North Texas, surrendering just 7 yards on 25 carries – a total that is tied for the second-best in an FBS game this season, trailing only Louisville's performance last week against Florida International (3 yards on 34 attempts). But how will defensive coordinator Todd Grantham's young Bulldogs fare against a physical LSU ground game?

Young defenses adjusting: Both defenses have replaced a ton of key players from last season and John Chavis' LSU defense has been the statistically superior group thus far, tying for third in the SEC in total defense (310 ypg) compared to Georgia's 11th (388.7). In fact, the Tigers are allowing just 2.4 yards per game more than last season, when they ranked eighth in the FBS in total defense. Granted, they haven't faced the level of competition – TCU, UAB, Kent State and Auburn – that they will face today from a Georgia offense that is averaging 40.3 points and 574 yards per game. The Tigers took a commanding lead and then allowed Auburn to make things interesting with 333 yards in the second half last week. Such letdowns against the Bulldogs could produce devastating results.

UGA D-line seeks more consistency

September, 6, 2013
9/06/13
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ATHENS, Ga. -- Like most of Georgia's defense, the Bulldogs' line had its moments of competence -- and even solid play -- in last Saturday's season-opening loss at Clemson.

The problem across the board was that there weren't enough of those moments, and the line knows it must turn in a more consistent performance with South Carolina's physical rushing attack on tap Saturday.

“We didn't tackle that good in the last game, so we're just trying to come out and just get ready for South Carolina,” Georgia defensive end Toby Johnson said. “Them boys, they like to run the ball a lot, so obviously we've got to tackle.”

Led by tailback Mike Davis, who might have wound up at Georgia had Todd Gurley not committed to the Bulldogs first, South Carolina pounded North Carolina for 228 rushing yards and 6 yards per carry in last week's opener. Included in Davis' 115 rushing yards was a 75-yard touchdown run that cemented the Gamecocks' 27-10 victory.

“He’s not the biggest guy, but he’s tough,” Georgia nose guard Mike Thornton said of Davis, his former teammate at Atlanta's Stephenson High School. “He’s a tough runner.”

To contend with Davis' power running and South Carolina's NFL-sized offensive line, Georgia's defensive front also must be tougher following its uneven results in Week 1.

[+] EnlargeGarrison Smith
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesGarrison Smith, a 6-foot-3, 299-pound senior, is now listed as Georgia's starting nose guard.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, Clemson ran 36 times on designed runs inside the tackles for 158 yards (4.4 YPC) and a touchdown last Saturday. That number would look more impressive were it not for a 36-yard run by Rod McDowell in the fourth quarter to set up Clemson's final touchdown.

“We swarmed to the ball as a defense, especially our linebackers, but for the most part we missed a lot of big tackles,” Johnson said. “That goes with me, I missed a big sack. So we've just got to wrap up and keep our head up and keep your feet.”

Considering that it was the first college game for a couple of Georgia linemen and the first heavy dose of playing time for a couple more, defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said he actually came away feeling encouraged after watching film of the group's debut effort.

“I thought there was some good things. At times they were stout and did the things we had to do. We’re so young, we’ve got to continue to work on our techniques and our fundamentals to be consistent in our play,” Grantham said. “I walked away thinking that if we can build on this, we’ll be fine. And really I walked away as that for the whole unit from that standpoint after watching the tape.”

The Bulldogs practiced in full pads Tuesday and Wednesday in an effort to work more on shedding blocks and tackling. They also shuffled their depth chart, placing Garrison Smith as the starting nose guard and Sterling Bailey and Josh Dawson as the starting ends, although Grantham insisted that making a fuss over players' positional labels is “so overrated” in his scheme that shifts between a traditional 3-4 base defense and a nickel look that deploys four players along the line.

Nonetheless, Smith played in the interior of the line for much of the Clemson game and felt he performed well, even if his 299-pound frame is considerably smaller than Georgia's 2012 nose men, John Jenkins and Kwame Geathers.

“I ain’t the size of a double-wide trailer like John Jenkins and Kwame. I’m like a dually [truck] and they’re like an 18-wheeler ... a big Mack truck, Freightliners,” Smith said. “It’s a big difference between our sizes, but I just do it the best I can.”

It should help that new line coach Chris Wilson seems prepared to follow through on his plan to use more players up front. Thornton said the Clemson game was “was the most we’ve ever rotated since I’ve been here.”

And it made a difference in the players' energy levels, as Clemson's offensive play count built and the game reached its latter stages.

“It’s a noticeable difference when you know you’ve got somebody that can come in and play a couple snaps for you, and you don’t have to worry about getting so winded and getting so tired,” Smith said. “You can get a couple plays off and be able to go back in and be able to keep playing hard.”

Whoever is in the game along Georgia's line will have one main challenge come Saturday. South Carolina arrives each week planning to dominate the line of scrimmage, and the Bulldogs must play a tougher, more consistent brand of defense if they are to end a three-game losing streak against the Gamecocks.

“Something that’s going to pop up on the film whenever you look at it and just see how big and physical they are,” Dawson said. “You’ve just got to match them.”

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