Bulldogs, Tigers lines each have something to prove
By David Hale
ATHENS, Ga. — The numbers won’t exactly jump off the page, but that’s no cause for disappointment, defensive line coach Rodney Garner said.
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Geno Atkins and Jeff Owens were both preseason All-SEC candidates and are considered future NFL players, but the statistics through four games haven’t exactly underscored their talent. But statistics aren’t everything.
“I think they’re having a good year, a solid year,” Garner said. “Can they be better? I think we can be better at every position. That’s the goal is to try to become better and more dominating, and hopefully that’s what they’re going to do each week.”
Owens, Atkins and the rest of Georgia’s defensive line may have had their best game of the season a week ago against Arizona State, but the challenge gets even bigger today when No. 4 LSU invades Sanford Stadium. The Tigers’ offense showcases a stable of talented tailbacks and an offensive line with something to prove.
Both Georgia and LSU entered the season with talented runners and an offensive line that figured to be among the best in the SEC. Through four weeks, however, Georgia ranks 11th in rushing offense in the conference, and LSU ranks 10th, picking up 30 yards on the ground a week ago against Mississippi State.
With Georgia’s defense gaining traction and the Tigers’ running game struggling, there might be cause for optimism, but Georgia coach Mark Richt knows better.
“I don’t think there is any doubt, I think both teams are going to be very intent on running the ball and running it in a very physical way,” Richt said. “I don’t think either team is going to back away from trying to run that football.”
Through a 3-1 start, Georgia has been strong against the run, but the defensive line has struggled to match that success with any type of penetration into the opponent’s backfield. While runners haven’t picked up huge chunks of yardage, Georgia hasn’t been able to stop many for a loss.
That trend began to change last week against Arizona State. The Bulldogs tallied nine tackles for loss — a season high by a wide margin — and six came from the defensive line.
The improved pressure began not with the duo of future NFL defensive tackles, but with the return of defensive end Justin Houston, who was playing in his second game of the season after serving a two-game suspension.
It had been nearly three full years since a defensive end for Georgia earned the SEC’s Lineman of the Week honors. But Houston’s four-tackle, one-sack performance against the Sun Devils earned him the conference honor, and more importantly, it helped free up the Bulldogs’ big defensive tackles to stuff the run and pressure the quarterback.
“He made a big difference,” Owens said. “He got a lot of pressure on the quarterback, flushing him and just collapsing the pocket, and that’s what we’re going to need to be a successful defense.”
In the fourth quarter, Arizona State ran four times and lost 4 yards. It was a dominant performance for Georgia, and it was one that likely saved the game.
Owens, Atkins and fellow senior defensive tackle Kade Weston combined for four tackles for loss in the game, but it was the improved play of the defensive ends that stood out.
Houston had perhaps the best performance of his career at Georgia, but Brandon Wood, playing in his first game of the season, turned in a strong effort and freshmen Cornelius Washington and Montez Robinson continued to show improvement.
“It’s been a big difference any time you get a guy pressuring the quarterback, and Justin’s been able to do that the last two ballgames,” defensive coordinator Willie Martinez said. “Him and Cornelius Washington and some of the other guys who are coming on with that quickness off the edge, it’s been very key for us, and we’ll have to continue to improve.”