“We take pride in stopping the run and not letting anybody in our end zone,” sophomore linebacker Azeez Ojulari said.
Like its head coach, Georgia’s defense is a very goal-oriented bunch. At this point, the Bulldogs’ fans are quite familiar with the team’s goal for producing havoc plays. It’s 20 percent, a lofty number that UGA has achieved less often than it has not (the most recent game included).
But that’s only one of a number of borderline unreachable goals the Bulldogs set out for themselves each week. Another is not to allow any points. Another is not to allow a third-down conversion. Yet another is for the opponent to average less than 3.3 yards per rush.
They’re not meant to be unrealistic, but they’re intended to be extremely hard to achieve. Like not allowing a rushing touchdown.
“We’ve got goals for each game, and we try to beat those goals,” Ojulari said. “Some games we don’t get every goal. When we don’t, we come in, see what we’ve got to fix and work on it throughout the week.”
That No. 10 Georgia (5-1, 2-1 SEC) still hasn’t allowed a rushing touchdown to happen is hard even for Smart to believe.
“Well, I’d rather give up a 1-yard touchdown rush than a 50-yard pass,” said Smart, who has seen the Bulldogs allow 46-, 60- and 73-yard touchdown passes this season. “We have been scored on from outside those areas at times, and not as close. But I do appreciate the demeanor and the pride” the defense has shown in keeping opposing runners out of the end zone.
That distinction will be put to the ultimate test Saturday when Kentucky visits Sanford Stadium (6 p.m., ESPN). The Wildcats (3-3, 1-3) will be one of the best rushing teams Georgia has faced this season. They’re averaging 192.3 yards a game on the ground and have scored 11 rushing touchdowns in six games.
That has become an even bigger deal since Kentucky moved Lynn Bowden to quarterback. Starter Terry Wilson is out for the season with an injury and backup Sawyer Smith (6-foot-3, 219 pounds) struggled as his replacement. Normally a wide receiver and kick returner, the Wildcats gave Bowden his first start last week against Arkansas. All he did was rush for 196 yards and three touchdowns in a 24-20 victory.
“It's very different because (running quarterbacks) add an extra hat to the box,” Smart said. “So every single play … this guy can take off running at any time he wants on a drop-back pass, and the six or seven guys in the box might not have a chance to tackle him because he's extremely athletic. It creates a new dynamic for us.”
The Bulldogs have done a good job against the athletic quarterbacks they’ve run into this season. Notre Dame’s Ian Book managed only 18 yards on three carries, and they sacked Tennessee’s Brian Maurer three times and held him to minus-7 yards on four other rushing attempts.
Georgia got a small dose of a rushing quarterback Saturday against South Carolina when Dakereon Joyner came in after Ryan Hilinski was injured in the second half. Joyner had 28 yards on six carries, or 4.7 per rush.
“I think it helped us,” Ojulari said of facing Joyner the last quarter and a half, plus two overtime periods. “We scheme for mobile quarterbacks like that. We’ve got things we do, certain plays where we scheme for that. But we’re prepared for both quarterbacks.”