Defense delivers homecoming shutout
By Seth Emerson
ATHENS, Ga. — Washaun Ealey rested his head against a wall in the Georgia locker room, getting peppered with questions that, for once this season, were about a great performance. Across the room, an offensive lineman sat beaming.
Never miss a local story.
There was a lot for the Georgia football team to beam about after a 43-0 win over Vanderbilt, its first shutout of an SEC team in four years (South Carolina 18-0 in 2006). But one fact seemed to rise above all:
The running game had awakened.
Ealey rushed for 129 yards and a touchdown and had a 58-yard run that seemed to spark the offense. Carlton Thomas had only four carries, but two of them were touchdowns.
This came after starting tailback Caleb King was suspended this week for two games. It also came after a half-season of disappointment and struggle for the tailbacks and offensive line.
“I’ve been waiting on it; the team’s been waiting on it,” Thomas said. “We, as a unit, we feel like, when the running game’s going, the offense is going to be real successful. Today, that’s what happened. We were successful on the ground, we were successful in the air, we were successful all around.”
The Bulldogs were on the good end of a huge difference in total yards: 547-140. Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray had another grand game (287 passing yards, two touchdowns and no turnovers).
Even third-down defense, which Georgia entered ranking last in the SEC, turned around: Vanderbilt converted on only 1 of 11 third downs.
Georgia (3-4, 2-3 SEC) entered as a two-touchdown favorite over Vanderbilt (2-4, 1-2). But a second straight rout, following last week’s over Tennessee, had the Bulldogs saying they feel they’ve turned a corner.
“It looks like we’re playing a little better,” head coach Mark Richt said. “It looks like we’re playing with a little more passion,. We’re improving. I thought we were improving when we were losing. But, hopefully, we’ll keep going and keep getting better.”
As disappointing a half-season as it had been for Georgia, it was even worse for the Bulldogs’ tailbacks. Ealey started the wrong way, with an arrest that left him suspended for the opener. Then he had two critical fumbles inside the 5, in losses to South Carolina and Mississippi State.
Ealey made clear Saturday his emphasis is on holding on to the ball.
“It was a big game for me. I knew I just had a lot of people depend on me, our team and the Bulldog nation, were depending on me to have a big game,” Ealey said. “That’s what I went out there and tried to do. I tried to go out there and run hard and protect the ball.”
The big run came on the first play of Georgia’s second drive. Ealey took a handoff and went right, where there was no room. He changed direction, got blocks from Murray and receiver A.J. Green, and went 58 yards, the Bulldogs’ longest run this season.
Thomas scored on the next play.
Ealey credited Green’s block on the play, but Richt and offensive coordinator Mike Bobo also credited Green’s mere presence. The star wide receiver was suspended the first four games of the season.
“The running game’s going to improve when you start doubling an A.J. Green,” Richt said.
“When that guy’s on the field, it really opens it up for everybody else,” Bobo said. “The running game, the other receivers were able to make some big plays because of him.”
Meanwhile, the run blocking was good enough that Bobo said the tailbacks actually missed some holes early in the game.
“The line’s been catching a lot of heat, but I thought they’ve been blocking well all year,” Bobo said. “And, just for whatever reason, we missed a cut here or there. We just haven’t been consistent enough.”
The consistency was there on pretty much every unit in this game. Georgia now heads to Kentucky with a chance to even its overall and SEC records — and move toward salvaging something from its poor start.
“I feel like this week we kind of put it together, offensively and defensively,” senior linebacker Akeem Dent said. “The offense, they put up some points and got in the end zone a lot. Defensively, we went out and just played good defense today. So I feel like it’s starting to come together.”