Dawgs must keep from beating themselves in Columbia

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Both teams' strategies likely revolve around Todd Gurley. (Philip Williams / UGA)
B oth teams' strategies likely revolve around Todd Gurley. (Philip Williams / UGA)

B oth teams’ strategies likely revolve around Todd Gurley. (Philip Williams / UGA)

Chatting this week with several South Carolina fans about the upcoming game with Georgia, I’ve noticed they don’t appear to have much confidence at all in their defense, which got sliced and diced by Texas A&M, struggled early on with East Carolina and ranks last in the SEC. But they feel better about their offense now that tailback Mike Davis is back, even if they aren’t that confident overall about the consistency of quarterback Dylan Thompson.

But despite that they still feel pretty good about the Gamecocks’ chances against UGA simply because the game is in Columbia. In other words, they have more faith in the impact that howling mob of fans waving white towels to the techno beat of “Sandstorm” will have on the Dogs than they do in their own team.

It’s true that Georgia teams, especially the offenses, have tended to have trouble in Williams-Brice Stadium for quite a while now, especially during the Steve Spurrier era, and never more so than on the last visit in 2012 when Mark Richt’s team looked embarrassingly bad in a matchup of Top 10 teams.

This time around, Georgia is again in the Top 10 while South Carolina is barely hanging on in the polls. And yet, thanks to a history of close-fought games and the competitive nature of the SEC East, it’s still a compelling pairing, with Georgia-South Carolina rating as the most desired ticket on the secondary market.

On paper, the Dogs look like the more talented team (and are favored by 6 points in Vegas), but a lot of fans on both sides can’t get past that whole “Sandstorm” thing.

South Carolina's hopes are pinned on running back Mike Davis. (Associated Press)

South Carolina’s hopes are pinned on running back Mike Davis. (Associated Press)

Actually, not just the fans. Richt had the Danish tune blaring at practice this week and had QB Hutson Mason whispering signals to try and get the offensive line acclimated to not being able to hear the count. As receiver Chris Conley granted, “Our challenge this week as an offense — even as a defense, but more so as an offense because scoring points in that stadium is difficult — [is] to be able to execute. It comes down to technique. Whenever you watch the game film from that stadium, there’s so many mental errors that take place.”

I like how the AJC’s Chip Towers put it when he noted that Georgia’s Jordan Jenkins said he actually likes “Sandstorm” and gets revved up by it. Said Chip: “Indeed, the Bulldogs need to wave their own towels when the Gamecocks blast that song over their loudspeakers. Georgia needs to embrace the atmosphere rather than be intimidated by it.”

Beyond the intagibles presented by playing in Columbia, you really have two teams with similar situations trying to figure out how to handle each other. Both prefer to run first with a big, reliable tailback (though South Carolina doesn’t have Georgia’s depth in the running game, which could be a factor if Davis gets banged up again, like he was against A&M). Both come into the game without their stellar quarterbacks from last year, wondering their senior first-year starters have what it takes. Both want to stay out of third-and-long situations. And both have unproved or questionable secondaries.

What Mark Richt needs is a smart game from quarterback Hutson Mason. (Brant Sanderlin / AJC)

What Mark Richt needs is a smart game from quarterback Hutson Mason. (Brant Sanderlin / AJC)

Georgia, of course, has the brightest star player in Heisman candidate Todd Gurley, and most folks expect Gamecocks defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward to load the box in attempt to slow him down, putting the onus on Mason to move the ball with a passing game that is slightly suspect thanks to the absence of the Dogs’ biggest downfield threats. That was the biggest question mark coming out of the big win over Clemson: Can Georgia still be as balanced an attack with Mason as it was with Aaron Murray?

I’m not that worried about the downfield passing game, though. Even without Malcolm Mitchell and Justin Scott-Wesley, Mason has a couple of ace receivers in Michael Bennett and Chris Conley, and has shown a liking for throwing to backs and receivers coming out of the backfield, which takes on greater potency with the likes of Sony Michel and Isaiah McKenzie now among his potential targets. And the Cocks’ pass defense is definitely vulnerable on the outside, while their front (which misses the Jadeveon Clowney factor) hasn’t generated a very effective pass rush so far. Plus, it wasn’t the deep ball that killed the Cocks against A&M, but rather a steady diet of short passes.

As for South Carolina putting eight to 10 men near the line to try to stop Gurley, I expect we’ll see Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo counter that with more of the Dogs’ spread package and a fairly uptempo no-huddle pace, while still feeding the ball to No. 3. And, as Gurley pointed out this week, when a defense packs the box, it means there’s a wide open field ahead if a running back manages to get through the first wave.

Bottom line: I think Bobo will throw enough to keep the Cocks honest, but will rely primarily on the run, keeping fresh legs in the game by spelling Gurley early on with his backups, especially Nick Chubb, just as he did against Clemson. I’m just hoping we don’t see Bobo waste as many offensive series in this game as he did in the first three quarters of the Clemson game. Georgia needs to keep the pressure on the Gamecocks’ defense.

On the other side of the ball, this game will certainly give us a better feel for whether Jeremy Pruitt really has turned Georgia’s defense around or whether the second half against Clemson was an aberration. Davis is a really good back and will be a handful for the Dogs’ defensive front, and Thompson showed even against A&M that he has the arm to connect on the long ball, and he has a couple of more than capable receivers in Shaq Roland and Nick Jones. He could be a big test for the Dogs’ still relatively inexperienced defensive backs. But he’s primarily a drop-back passer, so the Georgia defense won’t have to be as concerned with zone-read plays (the bane of Todd Grantham’s existence) as much as when Connor Shaw was taking South Carolina’s snaps. And the Dogs have the most imposing pass rush Thompson will have faced.

Steve Spurrier's team generally fares better against Georgia in Columbia. (Associated Press)

Steve Spurrier’s team generally fares better against Georgia in Columbia. (Associated Press)

What Pruitt doesn’t need is South Carolina getting to eat up clock with long drives, like it did against East Carolina. On the other hand, I’d love to see a repeat of the end of last year’s game in Athens, where Spurrier signaled surrender during Georgia’s last clock-eating drive by declining to call time out and taking off his headset, wouldn’t you?

One of the keys to the game is likely to be whether one team gets some breaks early on and forces the other to play catch-up, a scenario that the Dogs probably would fare better in. Another strong performance by Georgia’s special teams, who kept Clemson in poor field position much of the time, would be a big plus in that regard.

Richt has predicted a game that “could get a little bloody,” noting that “both teams are tough physically and I think both teams have outstanding backs that can pound. I know both teams know how to throw and catch, there’s no doubt about that, but before it’s over it might get down to a little bit of a fist fight.”

What it comes down to is, I believe the Dawgs are the better team, but they have to avoid mistakes and play like the better team for a full 60 minutes. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a fairly close game for the first three quarters, but once the Redcoats have ushered in the fourth quarter with “Krypton Fanfare,” the Dogs’ superior depth should dissipate that “Sandstorm.”

Go Dogs!

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— Bill King, Junkyard Blawg

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