ATHENS — To say they were frustrated vastly understates the mood. It was more a feeling of somber resignation among Georgia’s tailbacks.
If the Bulldogs were ever going to get their ground game going, this was going to be the game, and by halftime against Vanderbilt, Georgia had mustered 27 yards on 14 carries against one of the worst run defenses in the country.
They were down, offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said, but he refused to allow them to feel defeated.
Before the Bulldogs took the field for the second half, Bobo pulled the running backs aside. He told his players that he hadn’t lost faith. Rather than abandon the run in the second half, he said, they were going to run it more — over and over until Vandy’s defense collapsed. The game would rest on the shoulders of Georgia’s beleaguered backfield.
“A lot of it is guys believing in themselves so they can get it done and then playing with a mind-set that we’re going to run the ball,” Bobo said. “At halftime we said, ‘We’re going to come out and run the ball. Let’s get our minds right, let’s come off the ball, backs run hard and get the job done.’ ”
The result was a much-needed boost of confidence for the tailbacks and an even greater injection of life into Georgia’s offense. The Bulldogs ran for 146 yards in the second half, racking up an average of 6.3 yards per carry, and sealed the game with a dramatic 10-play, 68-yard touchdown drive on which Georgia never threw a pass.
It was an emphatic statement that the Bulldogs weren’t giving up on running the ball. More importantly, tailback Richard Samuel said, it was a reminder that they could get the job done.
“There’s a big difference between saying and doing,” said Samuel, Georgia’s leading rusher this season. “Going out there and seeing the progress, seeing how we can execute, it gives us a great deal of confidence. It let us know that we’re not as bad as the running game has put us out to be.”
The success was nice, but it was simply the beginning of the journey. Vanderbilt didn’t offer anything resembling the challenge Georgia will face this week.
The Bulldogs’ running game still ranks last in the SEC and 103rd nationally, averaging just 108 yards per game. This week’s opponent, Florida, has one of the toughest defenses in the nation, particularly against the run. The Gators are 12th nationally in run defense, allowing just 94 yards per game, and opponents have scored just two rushing touchdowns all season against them.
But that doesn’t mean Georgia is intimidated.
“You can run on any defense if you execute it right,” quarterback Joe Cox said. “We know there’s going to be times they stuff us, but we’re going to have to stick to the run game because we need it. ... We know what we need to do, and we know the running game is important. We’ve got to get it going no matter how good they are.”
Knowing they need the production is one thing. Finding someone who can create it is another challenge altogether.
Georgia opened fall practice wondering who would carry the load at tailback following the departure of Knowshon Moreno, and now, three months later, the Bulldogs are no closer to an answer.
Six different players have lined up at tailback already this season, with true freshman Washaun Ealey getting the start against Vanderbilt following six straight starts by Samuel to open the season. Head coach Mark Richt said none of the tailbacks have shown an ability to successfully execute the entire playbook, and Bobo admits no one has earned a bulk of the carries.
Beyond the tailback carousel, Georgia’s entire running game has been in flux. The offensive line has featured four different starting lineups through seven weeks, and Bobo expects yet another new look on the line against Florida. Three different tight ends, including two true freshmen, have seen action, too. And at fullback, both Shaun Chapas and Fred Munzenmaier have earned significant playing time.
“They’re all there together, and it’s a work in progress to find the right mix of running backs and linemen and tight ends for our running game,” Bobo said.
For all the problems the running game has faced this season, the constant shuffling of lineups has been one of the most difficult to overcome.
“It’s been difficult to get in a groove, get in a rhythm, gel and keep things moving,” Samuel said. “It’s a little complicated to get it rolling.”
Bobo is empathetic, but said until someone separates himself from the pack, there are few alternatives. If a tailback isn’t performing, he hasn’t had the luxury of sticking with him. With the game on the line, Bobo has been forced to make a change.
That makes each carry a cherished opportunity, sophomore Caleb King said, and it ratchets up the pressure to use those opportunities wisely.
“I think each player knows if you don’t do it right, the next person is going to go in there and do it better,” King said. “It just gives you an extra boost of confidence and the swagger you need to try to go out there and make something happen.”
Richt said he has no idea which tailback will get the starting nod Saturday against Florida. Two weeks ago, King was scheduled to get the start, but the opening play call dictated Ealey be in the game. That’s the problem with having a bevy of backs, but none who are consistently reliable.
But consistency isn’t so much the issue against Florida, Richt said. This week is all about opportunity. The Gators are too good to expect to move the ball in big chunks. What Richt hopes is that the Bulldogs can chip away enough that eventually they strike gold.
“Sometimes you’ve just got to keep hammering, and all of a sudden one will pop,” he said. “There’s some defenses that you play that it’s very difficult to be real methodical in your movement of the ball down the field. Sometimes you play against a defense like Florida where you know they’re going to get you, and you need to get them at times, too. You’ve got to trade blows.”
Georgia doesn’t have to look back too far to find the template.
In 2007, the challenge of running the ball against the Gators looked arduous as well. The Bulldogs backfield had been a convoluted rotation of runners, too. But when the game ended, Moreno had trumpeted his arrival as the latest great running back in Athens by pounding the Gators for 188 yards and three touchdowns in a 42-30 Georgia win.
“You look back at how we ran the ball hard, the team played physical and we kept running,” Samuel said. “We look at that and say, if it happened in 2007, why can’t it happen today?”
That’s the confidence Bobo has been waiting to hear. It’s the confidence success breeds.
Now, the task becomes turning confidence into more success, and that could well be the difference in the game Saturday.
“That’s what we’re preaching right now is, we’re going to run it, and we’ve got the mind-set, confidence to get it done,” Bobo said. “This team we’re playing this week, they’re going to make great plays. They’re going to stop us. But we’ve got to keep fighting, keep doing what we do and keep executing when we get opportunities.”