By: Scott Crumbly
SEC Digital Network
Lake Mary, Fla. – Things are beginning to heat up in the Southeastern Conference as we enter week six, and Columbia, S.C., will be center of the college football world this Saturday night as No. 5 Georgia comes to town for a massive Eastern Division showdown with No. 6 South Carolina. ESPN’s College GameDay will get the party started in the morning, and the atmosphere promises to be electric leading up to the 7 p.m. kickoff.
This top-10 matchup presents a number of intriguing storylines, but perhaps none will be more crucial to the outcome than the battle between Georgia’s powerful offense and the stingy South Carolina D.
The Gamecocks know that they will have to slow down UGA’s potent rushing attack, which is led by two breakthrough freshmen in Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall. Much has been made of the Dawgs’ (5-0, 3-0 SEC) tandem of backs this year, but you simply can’t say enough about how good they’ve been; Georgia has the SEC’s best running game, averaging 250 yards per game through their first five contests.
To say the “Gurshall” boys have carried the load on the ground would be an understatement, as they have accounted for 76.9 percent of UGA’s rushing production. Their 964 rushing yards are more than 11 of 14 SEC schools have managed altogether this season. Gurley currently leads the SEC in rushing yards (536) and touchdowns (nine), and Marshall has been the conference’s most explosive back with his 8.2-yards per carry average (tops among SEC runners with at least 10 carries in 2012).
Thus far, Gurley has provided the spark against opposing defenses while Marshall has supplied the proverbial gasoline – Gurshall has broken off 13 runs of over 20 yards, including five runs of 50-plus yards and two more of 70-plus. These kind of hellacious gashes have devastated defenses and helped the Dawgs average over 48 points per outing.
Gamecocks head coach Steve Spurrier – who knows what it’s like to have a prolific freshman back after Marcus Lattimore ran for 1,197 yards yards and 17 TDs as a rookie two seasons ago – understands the need to limit UGA’s ground production on Saturday.
“They’ve got two good ones,” Spurrier said of Gurley and Marshall. “They use both of them and we’ve got to stop them or slow them down if we’re going to have a chance here Saturday night.”
On Wednesday’s SEC teleconference, Georgia head coach Mark Richt praised his young runners for their work so far.
“The passing game comes a little bit slower with most freshmen backs,” Richt said. “But if you just turn to them and hand them the ball with a little bit of space, they’re going to do some good things if they’ve got that gift to begin with. Those two gentlemen do for sure.”
While the UGA ground game has been lethal thus far, it has not faced a defense as nasty as the unit that South Carolina will trot onto the field inside Williams-Brice Stadium this weekend.
The Gamecocks (5-0, 3-0) possess one of the premiere defensive units in all of college football, coming in at No. 12 in the nation in total defense and third in the SEC behind only Alabama and LSU. Carolina is ferocious against the run, allowing opponents a meager 77 yards per game on the ground on just 2.24 yards per carry. Those tough numbers are second only to Bama in the conference and good enough for seventh in the country.
The matchup of UGA’s offense and USC’s defense will pit strength against strength, and something will have to give when these two heavyweights meet on Saturday.
The Gamecocks have also made life difficult for opposing quarterbacks by registering 22 sacks this season, the second-most of any team in the NCAA. Jadeveon Clowney has been a terror off the edge in his sophomore season, registering 5.5 sacks from the defensive end spot. Clowney and Co. will be going up against a Georgia offensive line that has kept QB Aaron Murray upright in the pocket for the most part, allowing just seven sacks so far.
Murray has been stellar for the Dawgs, tossing 12 touchdowns to only three interceptions and bringing invaluable veteran leadership to UGA’s 11th-ranked offense. Spurrier knows that Murray’s success, along with a solid front five, has helped the Bulldogs in their efforts on the ground.
“They’ve got a good offensive line,” Spurrier said. “They’ve got a good scheme. They can throw the ball also, so they’re not just one-dimensional. When you can do both, you give the defenses problems.”
Murray’s counterpart, Connor Shaw, has been the most efficient passer in the SEC with a 78-percent completion rate. The Georgia native has competed 35-of-39 passes in his last two outings, and has thrown for five scores on the season with two picks and has added over 200 yards rushing.
“When you’ve got a guy like [Shaw] who is multitalented as far as a thrower and a runner, and makes good decisions, it’s hard to beat a guy like that,” Richt said. “Especially when you play defense like they do.”
Lattimore (88 yards per game, eight TDs) has looked like his old self after returning from a knee injury suffered last season, and he will look to take advantage of a Georgia defense that was pounded by Tennessee last weekend to the tune of 197 rushing yards. The Dawgs have allowed over 100 yards on the ground in every game this season.
Spurrier would love to see Lattimore continue his streak of success against UGA, which includes 358 yards and three scores on 64 carries in two career games against the Bulldogs. South Carolina, which had success at Kentucky last week out of the I-formation and has used zone reads out of the shotgun effectively all year, will certainly look to exploit Georgia’s weakness against the run.
This weekend’s game marks the first against a ranked opponent for both squads in 2012. With so much riding on the outcome of this game in regards to both the SEC East Division race and the national title picture, the showdown is undoubtedly each school’s biggest game of the year to date. The winner, however, will only face bigger games down the road as the result of this one.
“Should be a huckuva game Saturday night,” Spurrier said Wednesday. “Full stadium, TV game, all that kind of stuff. It’s a big game for both of us. Although, they’re hoping – and I’m sure we’re hoping – that we’ve got bigger games down the road.”
With No. 10 Florida also hosting No. 4 LSU on Saturday afternoon, things are about to get very real in the SEC.