Georgia defense hopes to return to its run-stuffing ways against Vols
Mississippi quarterback Jaxson Dart (2) is tackled by Georgia linebacker C.J. Allen (33) and Georgia defensive lineman Nazir Stackhouse (78) during the first half at Sanford Stadium, Saturday, November 11, 2023, in Athens, Ga. Georgia won 52-17. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)
And they each promise to be a significant challenge for the No. 2-ranked Georgia Bulldogs as they put their undefeated record on the line against Tennessee on Saturday in Knoxville (3:30 p.m., CBS).
Vols third-year coach Josh Heupel has a reputation for loving the long-ball. While Tennessee certainly still has the will and means to get deep on any defense, it’s really the run game that keeps the Big Orange offense on the move.
The Vols, second in the SEC in rushing at 213.3 yards per game, are led by junior Jaylen Wright, senior Jabari Small and sophomore Dylan Sampson. Add to that mix the quick feet and strong arm of quarterback Joe Milton III and it’s easy to recognize the run-pass predicament in which the Vols place defenses.
“You can’t stop it with light boxes; they make it where you can’t,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart explained Monday. “You’ve got to be able to strike a man, get off a block. Football is so simple when it comes down to (that). Like, you either get blocked or you don’t get blocked, and you’ve got to win a whole bunch of one-on-ones if you don’t have enough people in there because they expose you quickly and they’re very physically tough.”
Traditionally, Georgia’s defense has licked its collective chops when it saw run-heavy teams coming its way. In their run to the 2021 and 2022 national championships, the Bulldogs allowed opponents just 79.6 and 81.2 rushing yards per game. That ranked No. 2 and No. 1 in the nation, respectively.
This year, teams are hitting Georgia with 107.9 ground yards per game. That’s 18th among FBS teams.
Missouri’s Cody Schrader got loose for 112 yards and a touchdown two weeks ago. The Bulldogs stiffened up on Ole Miss running back Quinshon Judkins. He got only 20 of his 77 yards last Saturday after halftime but scored two TDs.
On the year, Georgia has allowed nine rushing touchdowns. At this point in the season two years ago, the Bulldogs hadn’t given up any.
Some of that is the cost of having 19 defensive players drafted the last two seasons. Eight of those were first rounders, including Jalen Carter, Jordan Davis, Travon Walker and Devonte Wyatt.
“You’ve got to stop the run,” Georgia defensive end Mykel Williams said this week. “You’ve got to win in the trenches; you’ve got to win up front. That’s something we’re going to have to be able to do.”
Injuries haven’t helped the Bulldogs’ cause. Georgia lost inside linebacker Jamon “Pop” Dumas-Johnson to a fractured forearm late in the game against Missouri. Freshman C.J. Allen started in his place last Saturday and recorded a game-high nine tackles and a sack to earn SEC defensive freshman of the week honors.
Williams is among several defensive linemen who have been held back by one malady or another. A foot injury that kept him out of spring practice followed him into preseason camp and limited his participation in the early season. Then an illness struck him midseason, forcing him to miss one game and limit his participation in the next. Williams has started only seven of the nine games in which he’s played.
Similarly, Tyrion Ingram-Dawkins, expected to be a major contributor on the line, missed six games after suffering a foot injury in week one. Seeing his first action in two months against Florida, Ingram-Dawkins is just now starting to reestablish his place in the Bulldogs’ rotation.
That has left seniors Nazir Stackhouse and Zion Logue to absorb most of the interior-line snaps. They’re sharing time with Warren Brinson and Christen Miller. Occasional assistance comes from freshmen Jordan Hall and Jamaal Jarrett.
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Williams is coming off one of his best games of the season. Among his three tackles, two were behind the line of scrimmage.
“He’s just now starting to play his best football,” Smart said. “The last two to three weeks, he’s been able to shoulder a little more burden of the snaps. He’s moving quick, playing with speed. He’s a really good leader, understands our defense. He really studies offenses really hard to know their tendencies.”
Stackhouse also seems to be coming into his own of late. Playing more away from the center, Stackhouse followed his interception-gone-viral against Missouri with a sack of Ole Miss quarterback Jaxson Dart last Saturday.
“He’s been showing up a lot recently and he deserves it because he’s been working hard,” said Williams, who was a 5-star prospect coming out of Columbus. “Most of the defensive line, well, all of us, we’ve been staying after practice and running. Nax’s been right there with us and I’m glad to see it paying off for him.”
The ultimate pay-off will be in getting by the Vols for a seventh straight time Saturday in Knoxville. To do that, the Bulldogs are going to have to find a way to keep Milton and the Tennessee’s running backs bottled-up, all the while keeping an eye on those fleet-footed wideouts.
“Easily the best stable of backs we’ve seen this year in terms of the package of they have, and that includes the quarterback,” Smart said. “So, it’s a really tough prep. They do a great job. The box count is what it is. They know what you’ve got. They know what you don’t got. So, it boils down to who can strike a block and get off a block.”