Dogs hope to carry it into Florida game
By David Hale
ATHENS, Ga. — 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 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, averaging 6.3 yards per carry, and sealed the game with a 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.”
Vanderbilt, however, didn’t offer anything resembling the challenge Georgia will face today.
The Bulldogs’ running game still ranks last in the SEC and 103rd nationally, averaging 108 yards per game. Florida has one of the toughest defenses in the nation, particularly against the run. The Gators are 12th nationally in run defense, allowing 94 yards per game, and opponents have scored 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.
Georgia opened preseason practice wondering who would carry the load at tailback following the departure of Knowshon Moreno. Three months later, the Bulldogs are no closer to an answer.
Six players have lined up at tailback 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 has 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 starting lineups through seven weeks, and Bobo expects yet another new look on the line against Florida. Three tight ends, including two true freshmen, have played, too. And at fullback, 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, the 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 cherished, 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 star today. The Gators are too good to expect to move the ball in big chunks. Richt hopes the Bulldogs can chip away enough to strike gold.