AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn has rarely been challenged the past two weeks.
If there is one area of concern for the Tigers, however, it is their rush defense. Despite beating its last two opponents — Arkansas and Tennessee, respectively, — fairly easily, Auburn has given up an average of 224 rushing yards. And as Ellis Johnson was quick to note, the Tigers’ foe this Saturday owns arguably the best running back in the SEC.
The player in question, of course, is Georgia’s sensational sophomore, Todd Gurley.
“There's so many good ones,” said Johnson, Auburn’s defensive coordinator. “We've played some really good ones, and there's still some left down the road. But I don't know if there's any more physical back than him. (I don’t know) whether he's back up to full-speed — he has certainly had an ankle injury that's kept him out for weeks at a time. But he's certainly going to be a load.”
After a phenomenal freshman campaign which saw him for 1,385 yards and 17 touchdowns, Gurley has been slowed by an ankle injury this season. When he’s been healthy enough to play, however, he’s still been one of the top running backs in the SEC, averaging 104.2 yards per game in six contests Auburn is all too familiar with what the Tarboro, N.C., native is capable of, as Gurley rushed for 116 yards and a touchdown on 11 carries in Georgia’s 38-0 victory in Jordan-Hare Stadium last year.
How do the Tigers stop him from running wild this year?
"Well, he's a great back,” linebacker Kris Frost said. “Everyone in the nation knows that, but we've played great backs before, and we know that if we just play sound defense and fill our gaps, we'll be good.”
What makes the matchup all the more difficult is Gurley’s talent adds to the potency of Georgia’s play-action passing game. On top of that, the player at the controls of the Bulldogs’ aerial attack doubles as the SEC’s career leader in yardage and touchdowns.
Having faced Aaron Murray twice as South Carolina’s defensive coordinator, Johnson has seen the improvements the senior quarterback has made in the past two years.
“You could tell he was a winner and he was a playmaker in his early years, but I've noticed how much better he feels when he needs to move in the pocket and he knows when he can extend the play, and he's doing some things that a veteran if you will knows how to do,” Johnson said. “He's lost a lot of his receivers during the course of the season and I'm sure that's hurt his production, but he still manages their offense (and) gets them in the right play.”
Most of the time, defenses have no idea what the play will be, either. Georgia has given Murray the liberty of checking plays at the line of scrimmage, Johnson said. At times, this also involves “false checks,” when they’re pretend to audible out of a play and then end up running their intended call, anyway.
If it sounds confusing, it’s even tougher actually defending it.
“You never know when you're getting a check play or you're not getting a check play,” Johnson said. “You can't know that you're going to be able to get out of the defense they've caught you in because he doesn't always let you. I just think he's one of the best game management quarterbacks in the league, not to mention how well he throws.”
Georgia’s defense has Auburn worried every bit as much.
Rhett Lashlee didn’t care about the numbers, which has the Bulldogs near the bottom of the conference in many statistical categories. He didn’t care about their youth, either, as Georgia has just one senior — defensive tackle Garrison Smith — in its starting lineup.
What concerned Auburn’s offensive coordinator was the athletes the Bulldogs have their disposal.
“They create some matchup problems and some unique things that are maybe different from what we've seen the last couple of weeks, but nothing we haven't seen before,” he said. “They do a good job and they put good athletes on the field. I think the defense we're going to face on Saturday might be one of the better defenses, if not the best, that we've faced this year. And I really believe that.”
C.J. Uzomah believed everything his coach said. The junior tight end and Peach State product (an alum of North Gwinnett High) knows the Tigers can’t afford to mess up any assignments on Saturday. A third straight loss in the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry would hurt, he said.
That would pale in comparison to what a defeat would mean beyond just Saturday, though.
“We know the implications,” Uzomah said. “We know what’s at stake and how important this game is. That’s another part of the reason we’re focusing on this game as hard as we are. This isn’t going to be a cake walk by any means.”