War Eagle Extra

Auburn focused heading into latest installment of Deep South's Oldest Rivalry

AUBURN, Ala. — With all the attention Georgia's running game receives, it's easy for Hutson Mason to get lost in the shuffle.

While Mason may not garner the accolades or headlines Todd Gurley and Nick Chubb receive regularly, he's done a solid job replacing Aaron Murray at quarterback. His numbers aren't spectacular, as he doesn't even rank among the top 10 in the Southeastern Conference in passing yards per game.

What he has excelled at, however, is keeping turnovers to a minimum, throwing just three interceptions against 15 touchdowns.

And from looking at film, Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson has noticed Mason is in complete control of the offense.

"He's making great decisions. He's putting them in good plays," Johnson said. "A lot of times when people are making great runs and look like they're blocking everybody, they are executing well, but a quarterback probably put them in a good play. And it just looks like to me that he's doing an excellent job of that. And when he is throwing the ball, he's very accurate. "

That's not to say Johnson hasn't focused on the Bulldogs' ground game, which enters Saturday's contest second in the SEC in rushing yards per game (256.3). The past four games, they've had to make due without Gurley. But they haven't struggled in his absence, as Chubb, a true freshman, stepped in to run for 671 yards and five touchdowns on 102 carries.

Gurley alone was tough to stop.

Adding Chubb to the equation, Johnson admitted, has only made his job more difficult.

"It’s going to be tough now. They’ve got two backs that can start for anybody. They’re both playing extremely (well)," Johnson said. " ... With those two guys rotating and staying fresh, it’ll be really a big-time challenge and that’s of course where it’s all got to start. They really do a great job of feeding off that running game."

There's one other aspect of Georgia's offense that Johnson doesn't believe gets enough credit: how they constantly fluctuate the tempo at which they operate.

"Nobody thinks of Georgia as a fast-paced team, but they do a great job of speeding up and slowing down and changing their tempo," he said. " South Carolina was good at it. The thing about it is, everybody is developing their defenses now because of the spread and the pace and (it's) becoming what you play about eight or nine weeks, so a lot of your stuff is geared toward stopping these teams that can line up real fast. ... They are one of the harder teams, I think, to defend because of their balance."

It's an equilibrium Auburn's own offense hopes to achieve as well.

The task has been complicated by the likely absence of top receiver D'haquille Williams. He sent out a tweet Friday afternoon wishing his teammates good luck as they traveled to Athens, implying he didn't make the trip after injuring his right knee in last week's loss to Texas A&M.

But there was one possible issue offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee wasn't worried about: a lack of familiarity with Georgia's defensive schemes. Though the Bulldogs are in their first year under new coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, Lashlee knows his adversary well, facing the Pruitt-led Florida State defense in last season's BCS championship game.

With that knowledge in the back of his mind, Lashlee preferred to focus on the Bulldogs' playmakers, easily rattling a handful of names off the top of his head.

"They've got good speed and athleticism. The two linebackers that are back, (Ramik) Wilson and (Amarlo) Herrera, are very good players and have played a lot of ball. They are probably as good a linebacker tandem as there is in our league I would think," Lashlee said. "They have some guys that can really rush the passer. They've got the young kid on the edge, the (Lorenzo) Carter kid. They've got (Leonard) Floyd. They've got some guys with a lot of experience inside with (Mike) Thornton and (Ray) Drew and Jordan Jenkins."

One key for the Tigers this weekend is ball security. That's the case in every game, of course, but it figures even more prominently Saturday, with Georgia ranking fourth in the nation and tops in the SEC in turnover margin at plus-13.

That tidbit didn't surprise Lashlee.

"They are a team that has been very aggressive and very attacking, which is what Jeremy does," he said. "I think they lead at least the league in turnover margin, so they generate a lot of things for their offense much like Ole Miss does. It will be a pretty good challenge for us.”

After having their 14-game home win streak snapped last week, senior defensive lineman Gabe Wright is just ready to get on the field again. Though it hurt Auburn's hopes of reaching the College Football Playoff, Wright said he wasn't focused the postseason.

All the Tigers can do now is try to win out and hope for more chaos across the college football landscape.

"The main focus is to beat Georgia, I can promise you that," Wright said. "If we’re blessed enough to get that, then we’ll be (all) right that way. To get to that point, we’ll have to take care of business this week."