Game breakdown: A closer look at No. 13 Georgia’s matchup against Kentucky

FIVE KEYS

Game breakdown: A closer look at No. 13 Georgia's matchup against Kentucky
Marc Weiszer

1. Don’t play down to opponent

Kentucky is reeling after five straight losses and could be headed to its worst season since at least 2004 when it finished 2-9. This isn’t about the team lined up across from Georgia. It’s about trying to regain all the lost momentum from the 35-7 kick to the gut against South Carolina two weeks ago. A crisp showing will get the Bulldogs headed to Jacksonville on the right note.

2. Convert on third down

Georgia hopes to get back to better success hitting passes on first downs so it doesn’t get stuck with third-and-long situations. The Bulldogs converted 7 of 16 third downs against South Carolina.

“That’s really the No. 1 thing we want to do as an offense this week is stay ahead of the chains, keep ourselves in good down and distance,” offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said.

Kentucky is having trouble getting stops on third down. It’s the second worst in the nation behind only Baylor. Opponents are converting on 55.7 percent of third downs against the Wildcats.

3. Run, run, run

Both Georgia coach Mark Richt and Bobo said that Georgia didn’t stick to running the ball against South Carolina like it should have when it was playing catch-up after trailing by three touchdowns before the first quarter was over.

Richt wanted more runs between the tackles on a day Georgia ran for 115 yards on 36 carries.

Kentucky should be inviting. The Wildcats are giving up 183.3 yards rushing per game, 12th in the SEC.

“We’ve got to establish the run, no doubt,” Bobo said.

He said freshmen backs Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall stepped up their game even more during the open week.

4. Don’t give it away

Kentucky is 9-2 under Joker Phillips in games when it has won the turnover margin and 1-13 when it has lost it. Georgia lost three fumbles against Kentucky last season and threw an interception in the 19-10 Bulldogs victory. Aaron Murray has thrown an interception in four of Georgia’s last five games, including on his first attempt against South Carolina.

5. Bring the pressure

Kentucky has given up 13 sacks the past three games, including eight to South Carolina. The Wildcats gave up only four sacks in three games when quarterback Maxwell Smith was still healthy and available.

“A lot of that had to do with Max getting the ball out of his hands,” Phillips said.

Georgia may not have top-pass rusher Jarvis Jones due to a sprained ankle, but that could mean more playing time for freshman Jordan Jenkins. Todd Grantham could dial up some blitzes to pressure Kentucky freshman Jalen Whitlow.

WHO HAS THE EDGE?

OFFENSE

Kentucky offensive coordinator Randy Sanders told reporters in Lexington this week that the Wildcats had to “reinvent ourselves a little bit” due to the injuries at quarterback.

The Wildcats have started three different quarterbacks this season. Maxwell Smith is sidelined with a torn ankle ligament, leaving freshman and expected starter Jalen Whitlow and senior Morgan Newton to face Georgia.

“It’s been tough,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “When you go through two or three quarterbacks, it’s got to be tough. I can’t imagine what that would be like.”

Kentucky is last in the SEC in rushing (106.8 yards per game) and second to last in total offense (306.4) and scoring (18.6).

The Wildcats have lost top tailbacks Josh Clemons and CoShik Williams to injuries.

“They’ve got their injuries,” Bulldogs defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said. “The revolving door they’ve had at some positions have obviously created some inconsistency for them.”

Kentucky receiver La’Rod King (31 catches for 351 yards and four touchdowns) has 17 career TD catches, tied for fifth on the program’s career list.

Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray is looking to bounce back from a career-low 109-yard outing against South Carolina. It was the worst game of his career in terms of passing efficiency (58.6).

Sophomore Malcolm Mitchell had more practice time to get readjusted to the offense after focusing on defense in the spring, preseason and early this season.

“He’s still a very raw receiver trying to learn the position,” Bobo said. “There’s no denying when the ball’s in the air he has the ability to make plays. … The little things still have to improve for him.”

Edge: Georgia

DEFENSE

Georgia’s underperforming defense has been a big subject during the two weeks since the Bulldogs last took the field.

“We took a hard evaluation of the things that those guys were doing to make sure that they understood it,” Grantham said. “The main thing is everybody is on the same page and doing their job. … I’ve seen progress. As we move forward, the continuity that we have with the guys available now, we’ll be fine.”

The Bulldogs have given up 14 plays of 30 yards or more. Richt said most of the problems have been communication problems on the backend.

With Georgia’s defense back at full strength the past two games, the Bulldogs gave up 478 yards to Tennessee, 392 to South Carolina and nine total touchdowns.

How would linebacker Amarlo Herrera rate Georgia’s defense so far?

“We’ve been a 7.5 right now, but we’re going to take a 10.5 starting this week,” he said.

Kentucky is struggling mightily on defense. It is 11th in total defense (415.6 ypg) and passing defense (232.3), 12th in rushing defense (83.3) and 14th in scoring defense (32.9). The Wildcats have given up the most rushing touchdowns(18) in the SEC.

Junior linebacker Avery Williamson is third in the SEC with 68 tackles.

Edge: Georgia

SPECIAL TEAMS

Kentucky punter Landon Foster averaged 48.4-yards per punt on eight kicks last week. Four of those were for 50 or more yards. He is sixth in the SEC at 42.9 per punt. Georgia’s Collin Barber is 12th at 40.2 Kentucky is eighth in the SEC in kickoff returns (21.8) and 13th in punt returns (5.6). Wildcats kicker Craig McIntosh is 3 of 7 on field goals, with a long of 47. Georgia’s Marshall Morgan is four of five on field goals. Georgia is 109th in the nation in punt return defense (13.4) after giving up a 70-yard touchdown to South Carolina. Georgia is 42nd in kickoff coverage (19.8 per return). Rhett McGowan is set to return punts again for Georgia for the second straight game.

Edge: Even

COACHING

Georgia’s coaching staff felt some heat again after another letdown showing against a ranked opponent two weeks ago in the 35-7 loss to South Carolina. The Bulldogs at 5-1 are viewed as underachieving in some corners given the talent on the roster. Mark Richt is 111-39 in 12 seasons and is 9-2 against Kentucky. Joker Phillips is 12-20 in his third season as Wildcats’ coach. He is 4-16 in the SEC and may need a strong finish to keep his job.

Edge: Georgia

INTANGIBLES

This should be a different vibe for Georgia than the spotlight that was focused on it for the top-10 matchup with South Carolina. Much of Kentucky’s fanbase has already turned the page to basketball. The Wildcats are averaging just 50,409 fans at 67,942-seat Commonwealth Stadium. You figure the Bulldogs should be more fired up for a regular Kentucky game given their disappointing showing two weeks ago and having the open date to rest up.

Edge: Georgia

OVERALL

This one looks like it could be as lopsided as the Vanderbilt game back on Sept. 22 when the Bulldogs flattened the Commodores 48-3. Then again Georgia has muddled at times through some games it was expected to roll through this year. The Bulldogs have something to prove to themselves and their fans. Look for a runaway victory to get the Bulldogs back on the winning track.

Edge: Georgia

MATCHUP TO WATCH: Georgia passing game vs. Kentucky secondary

Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson took advantage of Kentucky’s inexperience in its secondary a week ago.

The Wildcats may be getting a player or two back, but Georgia still should be able to find yardage through the air against a defense giving up 232.3 yards a game passing.

Wilson threw five touchdown passes and threw for 372 yards. The Razorbacks could have gotten more if the game wasn’t cut short in the third quarter due to lighting and bad weather.

“The veterans we have out wide, the veterans we have all over the field, I think we can really do some damage to those guys if we handle our business,” Georgia fifth-year senior receiver Tavarres King said. “That’s the plan, man. We’re going to try to be physical out wide and get after those guys.”

The Wildcats started three true freshmen against Arkansas, including Zack Blaylock at free safety, and are expected to start at least two today. Six true freshmen were on the two-deep in the secondary against Arkansas.

“Just identifying some tendencies is a little bit difficult because there are new guys playing different spots every week,” Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said.

Arkansas hit touchdown passes of 74 and 77 yards.

“There’s some holes obviously when you play some young guys,” Wildcats coach Joker Phillips said. “Sometimes they’re out of position, sometimes they’re in position, but this guy took advantage of them. We have to get more pressure in this guy’s face or play more coverage. Drop eight. You’ve got to do either or. If you can’t get with him with your front four, you have to blitz. If you can’t get to him with the blitz, you must drop eight.”

The Wildcats expect to get safety Ashely Lowery (concussion-like symptoms) back this week. Another safety, senior Martavius Neloms, “tweaked his hamstring again,” and isn’t expected to play, Phillips said. Kentucky will still also be without safety Mikie Benton (ankle).

“We’ve just got to be ready to make the plays based on coverages and who’s guarding who,” Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray said. “I don’t want to start talking trash, but we just have got to be ready to go no matter what we see, no matter who we see.”

This will be the second game without top receiver Michael Bennett (torn ACL) for Georgia.

Kentucky averages 2.1 sacks per game and hopes to pressure Murray.

“That’s what you have to do when you’re so young on the backend,” Phillips said. “You got to get more pressure on the quarterback. You can’t be comfortable back there. That’s what happened (against Arkansas). We didn’t get enough pressure on him and the guy takes advantage of a young secondary.”

FAST FACTS

Georgia

The Bulldogs nearly were shutout at South Carolina, but the late touchdown by Ken Malcome extended Georgia’s streak of games without being shutout to 214. Only Florida and Tennessee have gone longer in the SEC without being held scoreless.

Aaron Murray still needs one touchdown pass to tie David Greene for the Georgia career record and is three away from entering the top-10 all-time in the SEC with Florida’s Shane Matthews and Kentucky’s Tim Couch.

Kentucky

The Wildcats are fifth in the nation in most true freshmen played with 14. Fifty-five of the Wildcats’ 80 recruited scholarship players are freshmen or sophomores.

Kentucky is 12-51-2 all-time against Georgia, including 7-24 in Lexington. The Wildcats last beat Georgia in Lexington in 2006, 24-20.

TALKING POINTS

“Anytime when you don’t play as well or execute as well on the big stage, you kind of look at yourself in the mirror and try to figure out what you did wrong. We realize the five games prior to that we did a good job. We need to try focus on what we can do in the next game rather than try to harp on what we did in the past.” — offensive guard Chris Burnette

“We put that game behind us. We know this is going to be an extremely important stretch for us. If we want to have any chance of reaching our goals, we’ve got to win the next six games.” — quarterback Aaron Murray on the South Carolina loss

“It’s football. We understand that. Our motto has been the next guy up. We expect the next guy to come in and play and play well. A lot of times the next guy isn’t a true freshman. The thing we’ve had is our next guy has been a true freshman at a lot of positions.” — Kentucky coach Joker Phillips on the rash of injuries that have hit his team at quarterback, tailback and in the secondary

“We’ve got to play as if we do control our own destiny. … We were there last year. We know what it felt like, and we just knew we had to keep grinding. We had to keep playing hard, we had to keep winning. That’s all we’re trying to do right now. It’s happened before. It can happen again.” — Georgia coach Mark Richt on SEC East race

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