Now comes the toughest test of this season for South Carolina’s first-year defensive coordinator, Lorenzo Ward.
Georgia ranks second in the Southeastern Conference in scoring offense (48.2 points per game), first in total offense (536 yards per game), first in rushing offense (250.4 yards per game) and fourth in passing offense (285.6 yards per game). Through five games, the Bulldogs have allowed seven sacks, tied for third-fewest in the league.
They have 43 plays of 20-plus yards, 15 more than any other team in the league, and 22 of 30-plus yards, which are six ahead of the No. 2 team in the league. Of those long plays, 12 have gone for 40-plus, eight for 50-plus, 40 for 60-plus and two for 70-plus. Georgia ranks first nationally in plays of 20-plus and 30-plus yards.
So how, exactly, does Ward plan to slow down Georgia’s offense?
“Uh, that’s a good question,” he said. “They lead the league in a lot of statistical categories. We’ve just got to play defense, and the bottom line is getting lined up and executing what we’ve got called on defense and I think we’ll be fine.”
The true freshman tailback combination of Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall lead Georgia’s running attack, with 107.2 yards per game and nine touchdowns, and 85.6 yards and five touchdowns, respectively.
“They’ve been in some situations where they’ve been one-on-one with people in the perimeter and they’ve made them miss,” Ward said. “And when they make them miss, they have the speed to take it to the house. They’re both track guys and have got track times and are big running backs (Gurley is 218 pounds, Marshall 216). If you get them in space, they’re going to make some big plays and Georgia’s made a ton of big plays this season.”
Ward knows his group can’t afford a sloppy start like it had in last week’s win at Kentucky. The Wildcats went into halftime up 17-7 after gaining 173 yards, 93 on the ground. This against a USC run defense that currently ranks No. 7 nationally with 77.6 yards allowed per game.
“We missed tackles,” Ward said. “There was one play that we missed seven tackles on when the young man went down the sideline. It’s technique and fundamentals. That’s what we went back to in the second half, and that’s why we played better. We can’t start the game that way. We’ve got to play technique and fundamentally sound because they’ve got guys that are going to take it the distance when we miss tackles.”
Of course, third-year starting quarterback Aaron Murray is pretty darn good, too. Georgia runs the ball 61 percent of the time, but Murray ranks second nationally with 10.6 yards per attempt – very efficient.
“I think he’s the most experienced and smartest quarterback that we’ve faced (this season),” Ward said. “He does as good job of seeing what you line up in and he does a great job of getting that ball out of his hands. They’ve only been sacked seven times in five ball games, so that’s telling you that even though they’ve got some youth up front on the offensive line, he’s throwing the ball on time. That’s what he does a great job of.”
That’s one thing defensive line coach Brad Lawing mentioned this week – Georgia gets in formations that are advantageous against certain defensive alignments, by either Murray or the coaches changing the play at the line of scrimmage, after seeing what the defense does. This is a strong point for Georgia, but Ward downplayed its impact on USC’s defense.
“I don’t care what defense you play,” he said. “I don’t care what offensive formation they’re in. If you fit a defense correctly, there is no play that’s just going to say ‘you’re going to be successful against the defense.’ It comes down to 11 on 11. If I take care of my assignment, then I’ve got a chance to make a play. If I don’t, it’s got a chance to be a big play.
“They’re going to do a good job of trying to get them into the play they think is good for the situation that we line up in on defense. It’s going to come down to the 11 guys on that field, whether we’re going to beat the guy in front of us.”
Murray is a pro-style quarterback and Georgia has a strong offensive line, despite starting a true freshman at right tackle (John Theus) and a sophomore at center (David Andrews). Does this mean USC might overload with pressures more and bring more pass rushers than there are offensive blockers on a certain play? USC hasn’t done it a lot this season because it has gotten very good pressure primarily with its defensive linemen.
Ward wasn’t tipping his hand when asked about this one.
“We’re going to mix it,” he said. “We’ll bring pressure when we feel like we’ve got to bring pressure. We’ll bring it to stop the run. We’ll bring it to try to affect the pass. We’re going to call the game the way the game is going. We’re not afraid to bring pressure. That’s why we’re going to be aggressive on defense, and we’re not going to change our mentality because we’re playing Georgia.”
He was more definitive when asked why Theus, a highly regarded recruit, has been able to succeed this season despite starting as a true freshman.
“I think it’s the system,” Ward said. “They’ve got good coaches. They’ve got good players. The majority of players that are going to go to Georgia are the pick of the litter for them. We expect him to be a good football player. It’s just hard to come in this league and play as an offensive lineman (as a true freshman), so it’s a tribute to him that he’s doing so well. I’ve seen a lot of experienced tackles play against our d-ends.”
And what happened?
“The result,” Ward said without hesitating. “We’ve got 22 sacks.”
But Georgia has allowed just seven in five games. Is that due more to the Bulldogs’ offensive line or the fact that Murray does a nice job of getting the ball out quickly?
“I think it’s both,” Ward said. “They’re more of a play-action pass, deep shot team when they’re in two-back sets. When they’re a one-back team, they’re more getting the ball out his hands (quickly). It’s the system they’ve got. They’ve got good players, and the quarterback, he’s been masterful of seeing what you’re in on defense and getting rid of the football.”
In terms of USC getting some push with its interior defensive linemen, one thing coach Steve Spurrier said earlier this week was that the tackles have to do a better job of containing the quarterback when he tries to escape USC’s ends, who are coming off the edge. Ward explained this a bit more.
“When the quarterback got out at Kentucky, it was purely a breakdown in the rush lane where we’ve got to make sure we stay in our rush lane,” Ward said. “Then when (the quarterback) got past them (the first level defenders, i.e. the defensive line) we’ve got to make sure we don’t overrun it in the perimeter. That’s what happened in the linebacker spot in those two third-down runs at Kentucky. Hopefully we addressed that this week and we’ll fit it up better.”
But that probably won’t be as big of an issue this week against Murray, right? He is a pocket passer, for the most part, and has minus-8 total rushing yards this season.
“He can run, though,” Ward said. “The young man can run. He showed us last year and he got out of the pocket and ran for 15, 18 yards. Aaron can run the football.”
Ward has a good memory. Murray had runs of 17 and 23 yards against USC last season.
But Murray won’t have his top receiver, Michael Bennett, this week or for the rest of the season. He tore his anterior cruciate ligament this week in practice. Still, that didn’t really impact USC’s preparation.
“We didn’t do anything special (to prepare for Bennett before he got hurt),” Ward said. “Michael is a great player for them. I think him and Aaron have got a good relationship. He did a good job of moving the sticks on third down. I’m sure now they’ll probably find another great receiver at Georgia and put him in that spot. We never prepare for one particular receiver. We’ve got to be able to line up and play against them. We’re going to play zone, we’re going to play man and we’re going to see who the better players are.”
Finally, expect to see cornerback Akeem Auguste more this week, though Jimmy Legree will continue to start. This is Auguste’s second game back from a groin injury. Auguste said he played two series at Kentucky. He probably will play more against Georgia.
“We had a plan to play him a little bit in the Kentucky game and get him more reps in this ball game,” Ward said. “It’s hard to say (how many reps Auguste will get against Georgia), but he’ll be the starting nickel (back). We’ll move D.J. (Swearinger) back to safety (in the nickel package). (Auguste) will get more reps in that way, when we’re on third down, but he’ll get some reps early in the ball game at corner (not in the nickel package).”