Know Your Enemy: No. 7 Georgia Bulldogs

Know Your Enemy: No. 7 Georgia Bulldogs

The Basics Georgia

The Backstory

On Sept. 8, 2012, Georgia basically spoiled Mizzou’s entire season. Sure, the 41-20 defeat in Columbia stung, but the backlash from the physical abuse the players endured from the physically superior Bulldogs far outweighed the deficit on the scoreboard.

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James Franklin suffered a shoulder injury in Mizzou’s inaugural SEC game that plagued him throughout the rest of the season. (Chattanooga Times Free Press)

“Typically in the game if, in the past, my shoulder’s hurt and I throw in the game, I don’t feel it,” quarterback James Franklin, who hurt his shoulder versus UGA, later admitted. “But this is a little different because I feel it. And I think that’s really been killing my confidence because I’ve been not trusting myself with being able to make throws or put something on it.”

Already ravaged by injuries along the offensive line, Mizzou was never able to stabilize behind the hobbled Franklin and his backup Corbin Berkstresser.

This season, the script has been flipped…sort of. Georgia, a legitimate National Title contender, has been decimated by injuries. The Bulldogs enter Saturday’s matchup Between the Hedges without their top three receivers and both of their standout running backs.

OUT: RB Todd Gurley (ankle); RB Keith Marshall (ACL); WR Malcolm Mitchell (ACL); WR Justin Scott-Wesley (ACL); WR Michael Bennett (knee)

There’s also a very good chance that they’ll be without free safety Tray Matthews, who coach Mark Richt described as “doubtful.”

“Football is a physical game with injuries, and other teams have injuries,” he said. “Some guys are very excited about the opportunity to make more contributions, and the rest of the guys are excited about making their phase of the game stronger in order to help the spots that we’re wounded at, to a certain degree.”

(USA Today Sports)

Keith Marshall will miss the rest of the season after tearing his ACL against Tennessee. (USA Today Sports)

For Missouri, the narrative has shifted from pessimism to a collective belief that this team actually has a shot to knock off the No. 7 Bulldogs. A triumph Saturday and the newest member of the vaunted Southeastern Conference becomes a legitimate contender for the SEC East title.

“Missouri is a very, very hot team,” Richt said. “They are a team that looks very confident and should be. They are very well-coached, and they are looking to win the East just like we are. We are both undefeated in league play. It’s a huge game, and we’re looking forward to the challenge of it.”

Last Week

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Henry Josey carried the ball 14 times for 69 yards and a pair of touchdowns against Vanderbilt. (Columbia Daily Tribune)

Missouri posted a dominating 51-28 victory over Vanderbilt in its SEC opener. The Tigers accumulated 523 yards of total offense and posted six touchdowns, including four from quarterback James Franklin, who completed 19 of 28 passes for 278 yards and ran the ball 12 times for an additional 63 yards. Henry Josey and Marcus Murphy accounted for 69 rushing yards apiece, while six different receivers caught passes—highlighted by L’Damian Washington, who caught three passes for 86 yards and two touchdowns. The Tigers scored points on nine of their 12 offensive drives, including eight of their first nine (the took a knee to end the first half).

It was a tale of two halves for the Missouri defense, which limited Vanderbilt to just seven points in the first half (MU led 30-7 after two quarters), but allowed the Commodores to keep things interesting early in the second half, with back-to-back 70-plus-yard touchdown drives. Vandy quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels completed 29 of 41 passes for 338 yards with two touchdowns and an interception. Star wide receiver Jordan Matthews caught seven passes for 123 yards (he had two catches for eight yards in the first half).

“We started off fast. When you get a lead, the key is holding onto that lead and focus,” coach Gary Pinkel said. “We have to get better at handling those situations. I thought it was really good, I thought we played real well the first half. In the second half the defense struggled a little bit in the third quarter.”

With the victory, Mizzou moved to 5-0 on the season and cracked the AP poll at No. 25 for the first time since Week 2 of the 2011 season. The Tigers were 26th in the USA Today Coaches Poll, 11 points shy of No. 25 Virginia Tech. At 5-0, Houston was the only other unbeaten team excluded from the Coaches’ Top 25 (the Cougars did not receive a single vote).

“I think I have some special guys here,” Pinkel said. “Does that mean we are going to win every game? We are going to try and win every game, but I like this team and I’ve liked it before, but we can certainly get better.”

AP Photo

Marshall Morgan atoned for a missed field goal from earlier in the game, nailing the game-winner from 42 yards out in overtime. (AP Photo)

Down 31-24 in Knoxville with less than two minutes left in the fourth quarter, quarterback Aaron Murray orchestrated his second heroic comeback drive in as many weeks, finding Rantavious Wooten from two yards out to force overtime with five seconds left. In overtime, a fumble by Tennessee’s Alton “Pig” Brown as he desperately dove for the pylon brought the Vols opening drive to an abrupt halt and allowed the Bulldogs to kick a game-winning 42-yard field goal.

Murray finished the game with 196 passing yards and three touchdowns, while third-string running back J.J. Green racked up 129 yards. Green was thrust into action when Keith Marshall, UGA’s second string back, had to be carted off the field in the first quarter with an injured right knee.

Georgia’s defense gave up over 400 yards for the fourth time in its first five games, allowing the Vols to rack up 404 total yards (215 passing, 189 rushing).

“I really don’t have much to say other than I’m thankful we won,” coach Mark Richt said. “I’m thankful we’re leaving.”

With the win, the Bulldogs improved to 4-1 on the season and kept their National Championship hopes alive. They slipped one spot to No. 7 in both the Coaches and AP Polls.

Three Bulldogs to Watch

QB Aaron Murray

Aaron Murray has single-handedly kept Georgia afloat through this injury-plagued season. He’s completed nearly 65-percent of his passes for 1534 yards and 14 touchdowns. While the game-winning drive he orchestrated against LSU was a thing of beauty, his late-game performance on the road versus Tennessee was even more impressive. Despite the depleted arsenal around him, Murray managed to lead the Bulldogs on a 10-play, 75-yard drive to force overtime with just seconds left in regulation. Obviously, it helps that his offensive line has been fairly solid in pass protection, but even when the Vols managed to get heavy pressure on him on UGA’s final drive, Murray appeared unfazed.

“His leadership has been tremendous. He has given his teammates a lot of confidence that he can get the job done, as far as his role. We know that the quarterback position is a very significant role, and that’s why people want to just put it all on him. There’s certainly a higher percentage of winning and losing on how the quarterback plays, and how he reacts and leads, and he’s probably doing it as good or better than anyone in the nation right now.”–Mark Richt

The Advocate

While injuries have raveged the rest of the receiving corps, Chris Conley (31) has emerged as one of Aaron Murray’s (11) favorite targets. (The Advocate)

WR Chris Conley

Mizzou’s secondary will have its hands full with Chris Conley.The 6-foot-3 receiver is a legitimate big-play threat and has emerged as Aaron Murray’s favorite target with 20 receptions (matches career-high) for 318 yards (Arthur Lynch is the second leading receiver with 11 catches for 169 yards—Justin Scott-Wesley (16) and Michael Bennett (14) will not play on Saturday). Conley caught five of the nine passes thrown to him against LSU for 112 yards and five of six versus Tennessee for 64 yards. He had 36 catches for 630 yards entering this season.

“We’ve had a lot of adversity in this position this season. It’s kind of been the story that when one guy goes down, another guys steps up. We’ve had quite a few guys go down but I don’t think it changes anything. It’s not going to change the way we do things. It just means another young guy is going to have the chance to step up, and you are going to be hearing some new names.”–Conley

RB J.J. Green

Overshadowed by Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall through the first month of the season, true freshman J.J. Green had a total of just five carries entering the Tennessee game. However, when he was forced to step in and shoulder the majority of the workload Saturday afternoon, Green did not disappoint racking up 129 yards on 17 carries. The speedy tailback has the ability to make defenders miss in the open field.

“Little J.J. [Green] is a small guy but he has the heart of somebody that’s seven foot. He comes at you on every play and he runs hard. You’ve seen how he was running. Linebackers couldn’t even tackle him sometimes. When you have guys like that who are just going to compete, it doesn’t matter. I have full faith in [our freshmen running backs]. They’re going to get the job done, I’m just glad that we have guys like that on the team.”–Defensive end Garrison Smith

Matchup to Watch

Georgia Matchup

#Analysis

  • At the start of the week, I thought a 10-15-point loss for Mizzou would have been respectable. However, without Todd Gurley, Keith Marshall, three of Georgia’s top three receivers and free safety Tray Matthews to contend with, the Tigers have a legitimate shot at escaping Athens with a victory.
  • While it will probably be played up by the national media, there’s really no reason to be concerned with the atmosphere Between the Hedges. The early start time will quell some of the drunken rowdiness and that James Franklin has shown a knack for remaining calm, cool and collected with the game on the line in hostile environments–the best example I can think of is the 2011 Arizona State game when he led the Tigers back from a 30-16 fourth quarter deficit and gave them an opportunity to win in regulation, orchestrating a 6-play, 62-yard drive with less than 90 seconds left (Grant Ressel’s second missed field goal spoiled that drive). For a quarterback who was making just the second start of his career in a hostile environment, I’d say that’s pretty impressive.
  • However, the absence of free safety Tray Matthews for a second-straight game leaves an already porous Georgia defense even more vulnerable (Tennessee racked up 404 total yards, 215 yards through the air). The Bulldogs allow an average of 265 yards through the air  (12th in SEC) and have intercepted just one pass.
  • It will be fascinating to see which direction Gary Pinkel and Josh Henson go with the play-calling on the first couple of drives. It will be important to establish the run to keep the Bulldogs honest on defense, but considering how underwhelming they’ve looked thus far on defense, it may be worth taking a few shots downfield right off the bat.
  • On the other side of the ball, despite the decimation of the Bulldogs’ receiving and running back corps, they remain dangerous because of the man lining up under center. UGA averages 315 passing yards per game, second only to Texas A&M for most in the SEC and its completion percentage sits at a respectable 65.1 percent (fun fact, Mizzou is a hair better at 67.4 percent). The best move may be for Missouri to focus on taking away the passing game from Georgia…
  • Obviously, rendering Murray completely irrelevant will be damn near impossible, but Georgia’s offensive line is not necessarily an impenetrable fortress. The left side of the line seemed to falter late in the game against Tennessee…maybe it was nothing more than small-sample size theater resulting from fatigue, but it’s definitely something that’s worth keeping an eye on.
  • UGA is pretty terrible on both sides of the ball when it comes to third down conversions. They’ve converted on just 37.5 percent of their opportunities on offense (they were 1-for-9 before it converted on three tries on its final drive against Tennessee), while allowing their opponents to convert 44 percent of the time (worst in the SEC).

Final Prediction

If this game were in Columbia, I’d take Mizzou in a heartbeat. Unfortunately, it’s not. That being said, Georgia’s defense is flawed and I’m not sold on that offensive line. The Tigers emerge victorious in a high-scoring thriller in Athens (this thing is such a coin-flip, I could see Missouri winning this game and splitting the next two before inexplicably losing to Kentucky and Tennessee). Mizzou by 2

Brian Haenchen founded Hank’s Sports Blog in 2009. You can follow him on Twitter (@Brian_Haenchen) or email him (haenchenb9@gmail.com).