Matchup breakdown: A closer look at Georgia-Georgia Southern

FIVE KEYS

1. Start strong again

Georgia burst out of the gates against Auburn, scoring touchdowns on its first four possessions to take a 28-0 lead into halftime. Jumping out on Georgia Southern would make things more difficult for a team not as equipped to put up big points from behind. The Eagles have outscored opponents 110-46 in the first quarter. Georgia Southern hasn’t overcome a halftime deficit to win since Dec. 4, 2010 against William & Mary. They scored seven second-half points in both of their two losses this season.

2. Take advantage of offensive weapons

There’s no reason Georgia shouldn’t be able to score a bunch of points against a team that gave up 31, 31 and 26 points its last three games to FCS opponents. Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall should find running room against a team that gave up 272 rushing yards last season to Alabama. Appalachian State passed for 383 yards and three touchdowns against the Eagles two weeks ago.

3. Don’t give away possessions

Georgia Southern is 12th in the FCS in time of possession, holding onto the ball for nearly 33 minutes per game. That could mean fewer chances for Georgia’s offense to operate.

So not wasting a possession with an interception or fumble is accentuated.

“That’s a key stat every week, but this week’s it’s very important,” Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said. “You don’t want to give up a short field and lose a possession, but our possessions are going to be limited because of what they do. …The clock’s not going to stop a lot so we know our possessions are going to be limited and we’ve got to take advantage of it.”

4. Beware of rare pass

Georgia Southern has only thrown 65 passes all season, but when it does, the Eagles are averaging 22 yards per completion.

“When you’ve got to get your safeties involved in covering the run, in essence you’re playing man coverage on just about every snap,” Georgia head coach Mark Richt said. “They get a lot of really good matchups throwing the football.”

The Eagles have thrown seven touchdown passes.

“You have to have good eye control there,” Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said.

 

5. Recover those fumbles

Georgia Southern has fumbled 26 times this season, losing possession 14 times, tied for the fifth most in the FCS division. Georgia has become opportunistic on defense, forcing 11 turnovers the past three games, including seven fumble recoveries. Get a couple of those today and things will be tough on the visitors.

 

WHO HAS THE EDGE?

Offense

Eagles quarterback Jerick McKinnon rushed for 198 yards and three touchdowns on 16 carries and threw two touchdown passes in a 69-26 win against Howard last week. He’s rushed for 100 or more yards seven times in his career.

B-back Dominique Swope has big-play capability. He scored on an 82-yard touchdown against Alabama last season.

Receiver Zach Walker has seven catches for 256 yards and three touchdowns, including a couple of highlight-worthy catches against UT-Chattanooga and Appalachian State the last few weeks.

The Ealges are 10th in the FCS at 37.6 points per game and ninth in total offense at 467.3

Georgia’s offensive line had what coaches considered its best outing of the season despite missing starting right guard Chris Burnette, who could miss a second straight game with a shoulder injury. Center David Andrews was recognized as SEC Offensive Lineman of the Week and Mark Beard held up well at left tackle in his first college start.

Georgia is a well-balanced scoring team offensively with 24 passing touchdowns and 24 rushing touchdowns.

Tailback Todd Gurley leads all running backs (but trails Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel) in rushing in the SEC. He has rushed for 973 yards and 11 touchdowns on 149 carries. Keith Marshall has rushed for 638 yards and eight touchdowns on 116 carries.

Quarterback Aaron Murray is now up to 83 career touchdown passes — fifth most in the SEC. He is third in the nation in passing efficiency and has thrown 12 touchdown passes to three interceptions the past four games.

Edge: Georgia

 

Defense

Georgia has risen to seventh in the SEC in rushing defense at 135.3 yards per game after giving up 57, 46 and 75 yards on the ground the last three games. The Bulldogs now have 21 turnovers gained, which trails only LSU, Florida, Alabama and Mississippi State in the SEC.

The Bulldogs are now ranked in the top 25 in the nation in scoring defense (22nd at 18.8 points per game) and total defense (24th at 331.0 yards per game).

Linebacker Jarvis Jones has 10½ sacks and 17 tackles for loss. He leads the SEC in both categories in per-game average.

Inside linebacker Alec Ogletree has led Georgia in tackles in three of the last four games. He has 60 tackles in six games.

The Eagles are 16th in FCS in scoring defense (18.9) and 18th in total defense (313.9) but take a big step up in competition today.

Georgia Southern’s starting defensive ends — Josh Gebhardt and Dion Dubose — are listed at 6-foot-2 and 236 pounds and 6-1, 235 pounds respectively. Defensive tackle Brent Russell, a former Madison County High standout, was an All-American last year and could return from a suspension.

Georgia should have matchup advantages in the secondary, including against 5-foot-10, 169-pound cornerback Valdon Cooper, a transfer from Illinois who played at Elbert County.

Edge: Georgia

 

Special Teams

Georgia is 28th in the nation in kickoff coverage defense, allowing 19.7 yards per return and seventh in kickoff returns at 22.2 yards per return. Kicker Marshall Morgan is 7 of 10 on field goals. Punter Collin Barber is 12th in the SEC with a 41.0-yard average.

Georgia Southern kicker Alex Hanks is 6 of 13 on field goals, with three of those blocked. He missed field goals of 26, 24 and 26 in his most recent attempts two weeks ago. Punter Luke Cherry is averaging 36.8 yards per punt. J.J. Wilcox is 11th in the FCS, averaging 27.9 yards on kickoff returns. Darreion Robinson, from Clarke Central High, averages 7.3 yards on punt returns.

Edge: Georgia

 

Coaching

Georgia Southern coach Jeff Monken is 29-10 in his third season. Offensive coordinator Brent Davis is an Athens native who played tight end for Georgia from 1994-96 after transferring from The Citadel. Georgia coach Mark Richt is 115-39 in his 12th season. He clinched his fifth trip to the SEC championship game in 12 seasons last week against Auburn.

Edge: Georgia

 

Intangibles

Getting up for an FCS opponent the week after winning the SEC East may be difficult in other seasons, but Georgia players are determined to stay in the mix for the BCS title game. The unique challenge of defending the option has also placed more of a workmanlike attitude this week than perhaps in a typical game like this. Georgia Southern should be excited to play in an SEC stadium, but its biggest games are still to come in the FCS playoffs.

Edge: Georgia

 

Overall

Georgia Southern is back on track in the third-year under Monken. The Eagles reached the FCS semifinals the past two seasons, share first place in the Southern Conference and should be headed for the playoffs again. A team that lost to The Citadel and Appalachian State will have its hands full with Georgia. The Eagles’ offense can create problems, but its defense won’t be able to slow down Georgia’s explosive offense. The Bulldogs will eventually take control and pull away for their 10th win of the season.

Edge: Georgia

 

MATCHUP TO WATCH

Georgia defense vs. Georgia Southern’s option

Georgia Southern brings the top rushing attack in FCS to Athens today.

If you don’t think the Eagles’ triple option can translate against an SEC team, just ask Alabama.

The Eagles had 302 rushing yards, a 7.7-yards-per-carry average and 341 yards of total offense in a 45-21 loss to the Crimson Tide last season, the highest totals against Alabama in its national championship season. The 153 rushing yards by Dominique Swope were the most any player had against Nick Saban’s team.

“It gets tough third and fourth quarter to just keep going when they run it 60-some times on you,” Georgia linebacker Christian Robinson said. “It’s hard to do that, and you just have to take every play and just do your job on that play. It’s tough. By the end of the game, you’re spent.”

Quarterback Jerick McKinnon has rushed for 1,053 yards and 11 touchdowns and B-Back Dominque Swope has rushed for 827 yards and 14 touchdowns to pace an offense averaging 401.2-yards rushing per game.

“They’re fast, they play with great tempo, they play with great pad level,” Georgia defensive line coach Rodney Garner said. “They’re personnel is suited for that offense.”

Georgia Southern runs the ball on 90.2 percent of its offensive plays.

“We’ve got to be in a run-stopping defense every single snap,” Richt said. “I don’t care if it’s third-and-25 or if it’s two-minute drill.”

Georgia Southern will run the ball with its quarterback, fullback Swope or pitch it to a wingback.

“This offense is made for undisciplined teams,” Georgia defensive end Garrison Smith said. “They can put up a lot of points. If you’re not disciplined and don’t do your job, this offense right here will teach you some lessons.”

Said defensive coordinator Todd Grantham: “They’ve got enough skill guys and athletes that they can hurt you. You’ve got to have assignment football, you’ve got to make sure you’re disciplined and you take your responsibility. Even though it may not be to you yet, you have to take who you’re supposed to have because if not, they can get the ball on the edge and they can get explosive plays.”

Georgia’s secondary will be counted on for run support to fend off perimeter blocks.

“If they knock people down in the perimeter, they knock down those corners and safeties and guys that are trying to support the edge runs, that’s when they get the big ones, that’s when they get the home runs,” Richt said.

Georgia players have practiced all week to prepare for cut blocks, blocks below the waist.

“That’s why people run those offenses to get in guys heads,” Garner said. “We’ve got to make sure that we’re fundamentally sound, that we can go out and execute, play our assignments and play fast and move your feet. That’s the key, you’ve got to move your feet.”

 

FAST FACTS

Georgia Southern

Georgia Southern will get the Southern Conference’s automatic bid to the FCS playoffs if The Citadel wins today. The Eagles are expected to make the 20-team FCS playoffs anyway when the tournament field is announced on Sunday.

The Eagles are 0-19 all-time against FBS opponents, including 0-4 against Georgia. The Eagles lost all of those games in Athens: 45-21 in 2008, 48-28 in 2004, 29-7 in 2000 and 34-7 in 1992. This is Georgia Southern’s first game against an FBS opponent this season.

Georgia

This is Georgia’s only game this season against an FCS opponent. The SEC is 8-0 so far against teams that aren’t in the FBS. The conference is 99-2 since 1995 against such teams.

Georgia’s shutout of Auburn last week was its 10th since the SEC went to two divisions in 1992. That ranks sixth in the SEC behind Alabama (20), LSU (16), Tennessee (15) Auburn (14) and Ole Miss (12).

 

TALKING POINTS

“We normally play them about every four years. That’s been the routine. Every time they show up I’m kind of wishing we didn’t set it up. They’re just a very good football team.”

— Georgia coach Mark Richt on Georgia Southern, ranked sixth in the FCS.

 

“That’s the biggest game that they played and they weren’t scared and we know they’re not scared. They’re going to be very confident coming in here and they’re going to run what they run and you’ve just got to try and stop it.”

— Georgia linebacker Christian Robinson about playing a Georgia Southern team that traveled to Alabama last season.

 

“It really is a different brand of football in terms of the kind of things that defensive coaches are teaching their guys on a weekly basis in preparing for what is more traditional offense in college football these days. I think that is a little bit of an advantage for the teams that are running the option because it is so different.”

— Georgia Southern coach Jeff Monken on the difficulty opponents have going up against his offense.

 

“I think that’s what Alabama struggled with last year. They were one of the best in the country, but that was something different that they weren’t used to. They ran the ball on them pretty good.”

— Georgia cornerback Damian Swann on getting ready to face cutbacks from Georgia Southern players.

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