By Scott Crumbly
SEC Digital Network
The first of two “Off the Radar” games this week will take place in Athens between No. 6 Georgia and Ole Miss. Both teams are coming off wins last weekend, and each has an opportunity to take a step towards a significant goal on Saturday.
Georgia is now in control of its SEC destiny after downing Florida, and Mark Richt’s team can clinch the Eastern Division title with wins in its final two conference games of the regular season. To secure a return trip to Atlanta, UGA (7-1, 5-1 SEC) will first have to go through Ole Miss, which has experienced a resurgence under first-year coach Hugh Freeze.
The Rebels (5-3, 2-2) have won two straight SEC games, and a third straight would make them bowl eligible for the first time since 2009. Kickoff from Athens on Saturday is scheduled for 3:30 p.m. Eastern, and the game can be seen nationally on CBS.
Ole Miss Offense vs. Georgia Defense
Sophomore quarterback Bo Wallace will lead Ole Miss against a Georgia defense coming off its best performance of the year against Florida in Jacksonville.
Prior to last week, the Bulldogs had been struggling defensively, allowing opponents over five yards per play to go along with 167 yards per game on the ground. After being gashed by Kentucky for 206 rushing yards on Oct. 20, the Bulldogs brought their A-game against Florida and held the Gators out of the end zone in their 17-9 triumph.
Aided by the return of All-American linebacker Jarvis Jones, the Dawgs held UF to a season-low 81 yards rushing and limited the Gators to 3.8 yards per play overall. Georgia stymied Florida’s rushing attack, only affording 1.98 yards per carry on 41 attempts – a season-low for Todd Grantham’s defense. Jones was all over the field in his return from injury, terrorizing the Gators with 13 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss (including three sacks), two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. In total, UGA forced six turnovers after forcing zero in their two previous outings.
It was a defensive performance that reminded fans that these Bulldogs, who haven’t performed at the same level as they did a season ago on D, are still capable of playing great defense.
Wallace and the Rebels will need to protect the football to avoid facing the same fate as the Gators. Wallace is the SEC’s fifth-leading player in terms of total offense, but he has been intercepted nine times in eight outings this year. Fellow sophomore Jeff Driskel found out the hard way last week (2 picks) that the UGA defensive pressure can cause game-changing mistakes.
Georgia brought heat from all angles against Florida to notch five sacks. Jones and fellow ’backer Alec Ogletree were effective in the pass rush, and the Dawgs also got the secondary involved; corner Damian Swan recorded a sack and forced a fumble in the first quarter on an outside blitz, and safety Bacarri Rambo got a clean shot on Driskel on a rush up the gut later in the game.
Outside of the interceptions, Wallace has had success through the air this year. He has completed 66 percent of his throws this season for 1,649 yards and an eight-yard per attempt average. He’s tossed 10 touchdowns to go along with five more scores on the ground. He has displayed better decision making in recent weeks as well, only throwing one pick in the last two games.
In a 30-27 comeback win over Arkansas last week, Wallace looked solid in completing 78 percent of his throws to help his team overcome a 10-point deficit. He spread the ball around to six receivers and put the Rebels in position to win, which they did thanks to a late field goal.
Running back Jeff Scott has been effective, averaging over five yards per carry on his way to 614 yards and six scores in his seven appearances. Scott’s load has increased as the season has progressed, and he has seen 21 carries in each of the last three games and gone for over 100 yards in two of those.
Donte Moncrief and Randall Mackey have made plays in the passing game, accounting for 42 percent of the Rebels’ receiving yardage. Moncrief has secured five touchdown receptions in 2012, and Mackey is coming off a seven-catch, 99-yard performance against the Razorbacks.
Against the Bulldogs, Ole Miss will aim to maintain the same offensive balance (235 yards per game passing, 194 rushing) that has led to 32 points per game this season. Conversely, if UGA can replicate its stout run defense from a week ago, then the Dawgs will be able to focus their efforts on pressuring Wallace and set themselves up for another big performance.
Georgia Offense vs. Ole Miss Defense
Georgia’s offense appears to have the edge on this Ole Miss defense, which has had trouble defending the run in 2012.
The Rebels have surrendered over 100 yards on the ground in six of eight games, including 350 to Texas, 290 to Texas A&M, and 167 in last week’s win over Arkansas. Opponents have taken advantage of the Ole Miss D for about four yards per carry, which plays right into the hands of the Bulldogs.
UGA’s offense averages the most yards per play of any in the SEC (6.9), and the Dawgs have been especially strong in the running game this season. Much has been made about the “Gurhsall” duo of Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall, but the former has separated himself in recent weeks as Georgia’s go-to back. Gurley carried 27 times for 118 yards last week and is averaging 19 carries over the last four games. Marshall, on the other hand, carried 10 or more times in each of the first six games but has only seen 10 total carries over the last two weeks in UGA wins.
No matter who is carrying the rock, the Dawgs will look to run early against the Rebels, which should open things up for Aaron Murray and Co. Before last week, Ole Miss had run off four consecutive games in which it held its opponent under 200 yards passing. UGA will look to duplicate what Arkansas was able to do last week when the Hogs racked up 464 yards of offense on the Rebs.
Georgia’s offensive front should be able to establish the line of scrimmage for the Bulldogs in similar fashion, and Tavarres King, Marlon Brown and Malcolm Mitchell are certainly capable playmakers for Murray to operate with outside.
The 6-foor-1, 200-pound King excels in run blocking and leads the Bulldogs in receiving. He and Brown have combined for 867 yards and eight scores thus far, and Mitchell’s explosive 45-yard touchdown last week provided a glimpse of what the sophomore can become.
The Ole Miss front seven is led by freshman Denzel Nkemdiche. The undersized linebacker has outplayed his 203-pound frame, recording 52 tackles, nine TFL and two sacks. He’s added a pair of interceptions and forced fumbles, and his attitude and effort have helped lead a young, improving unit.
Although the Rebels have given up their share of yards, they’ve come up with some big plays when they’ve needed them (see: Charles Sawyer’s touchdown-saving interception of Tyler Wilson last Saturday). The unit forced five turnovers in a close defeat to TAMU, and it came up with two interceptions and three sacks in the winning effort against Arkansas.
Ideally, Ole Miss’ relatively small, athletic defense would like to bring pressure to Murray like it did to Wilson last week, but the key will be holding up against the Bulldogs’ powerful running game.
Special Teams Players to Watch
In the kicking game, UGA’s Marshall Morgan has converted on six of eight field goal attempts this year. The freshman missed a 37-yarder against UF, but he converted his other try from 29 yards in the win. Bryson Rose has missed one-third of his 15 attempts this season, but he drilled a 31-yarder last week to win the game in a high-pressure situation.
Jaylen Walton is second in the conference in kick return average for Ole Miss, and the freshman back busted loose for a kick return touchdown earlier in the season against Texas. Malcolm Mitchell handles return duties for UGA. Mitchell showed explosive potential with nice returns against South Carolina and Kentucky, but Florida limited him to just 33 yards on a pair of returns last week with deep kickoffs.