By Scott Crumbly
SEC Digital Network
ORLANDO, Fla. – After opening the 2013 season with three games against top-10 opponents in its first four contests, Georgia probably figured there was no way things could get any tougher as the year wore on. After all, the Dawgs were as battle-tested as any team in America after a treacherous September slate which it navigated to a 3-1 start.
What the seventh-ranked Bulldogs (4-1, 3-0 Southeastern Conference) couldn’t have expected, however, was a slew of injuries as severe as the ones they’ve had to deal with in recent weeks.
After losing veteran receiver Malcolm Mitchell in week one due to an ACL tear, the UGA receiving corps took another blow last week when Justin Scott-Wesley and Michael Bennett – Georgia’s second and third-leading pass catchers – went down with knee injuries of their own against Tennessee; head coach Mark Richt announced on Sunday that Scott-Wesley had torn his ACL and would be done for the season. The Dawgs were already without safeties Connor Norman (concussion) and Tray Matthews (hamstring) against the Vols, and they also lost punter Colin Barber to a concussion in the second half.
Even Georgia’s stable of running backs, which was a position with solid depth entering the year, has been decimated. Todd Gurley (ankle) has not played for the Bulldogs since he went down against LSU and is doubtful for Saturday, while stud backup Keith Marshall has played his last snap of the season after tearing his ACL early in last week’s overtime win in Knoxville.
With so many major contributors sidelined, Richt said it will be up to players like Michael Erdman and Blake Tibbs to step up at receiver and freshman running backs Kyle Karempelis and Brandon Harton will need to carry the load on the ground.
Making it through a full season in the SEC unscathed by injuries is a rarity, and Richt knows it’s just something his team will have to fight through as it tries to remain unbeaten in league play.
“We're ready to go to battle again,” Richt said Tuesday. “Football is a physical game with injuries, and other teams have injuries. Some guys are very excited about the opportunity to make more contributions, and the rest of the guys are excited about making their phase of the game stronger in order to help the spots that we're wounded at, to a certain degree.”
With Georgia walking wounded, this weekend is not an opportune time to face a red-hot team like the Missouri Tigers.
"Missouri is a very, very hot team,” Richt said of the Tigers. “They are 5-0 and 1-0 in league play and very dominating against Vanderbilt last week. It was kind of scary actually to watch the tape of it. They were so proficient on offense."
After winning just five games total in 2012, the Tigers (5-0, 1-0) enter Saturday’s matchup in Athens undefeated and on a roll. The Mizzou offense is one of the most balanced in the nation so far in 2013, averaging 285 yards per game through the air and 258 yards on the ground. James Franklin has quietly been one of the league’s best signal-callers this season, trailing only Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M in total offense.
“James is playing pretty well,” Mizzou head coach Gary Pinkel said this week. “This will be another test for him. James' performance does not surprise me right now. His leadership is great, and he is kind of what I thought he would be.”
Missouri had its fair share of injuries and attrition last season that contributed to the five-win finish, so the Tigers know what the Bulldogs are dealing with. But even if UGA was fully healthy, it would have its hands full with Missouri’s potent offense.
Franklin has weapons around him with receivers Dorial Green-Beckham and L’Damian Washington (nine total touchdowns) and three running backs averaging 5.7 yards per carry or better in Russell Hansbrough (7.9 yards per carry, three TDs), Henry Josey (5.7 ypc, six TDs) and Marcus Murphy (8.3 ypc, four scores).
Georgia has set off fireworks on offense this season, but the defense has had its share of troubles. The Bulldogs have found themselves in high-scoring affairs against Clemson, South Carolina, LSU and Tennessee so far this season, and dealing with Mizzou will not be any easier this weekend. The Tigers rank among the top-10 in the country in yards per play, while the Dawgs’ defense ranks in the lower half of the FBS in that regard while ranking 67th overall in total defense.
Regardless of statistical rankings on either side of the ball, Pinkel and the Tigers know they need to prepare for a battle this weekend.
“They are obviously one of the great teams in the nation with a bunch of great players, and great athletes that play well,” Pinkel said. “We understand that they are probably one of the best teams we will play all year. We are excited about the opportunity to play them.”
Kickoff from Sanford Stadium is slated for noon Eastern, and the game will be broadcast live on ESPN.
This weekend’s showdown between Georgia and Missouri will mark the third time that these teams have met on the gridiron…Georgia has yet to experience defeat against Mizzou, winning both of the previous meetings with the Tigers…The two teams first met in the 1960 Orange Bowl, with the Bulldogs claiming a 14-0 victory…Missouri will be making its first ever trip to Sanford Stadium.
2012 – Georgia 41, Missouri 20 (Columbia, Mo.)
1960 – Georgia 14, Missouri 0 (Miami, Fla. – Orange Bowl)
A LOOK AT THE LAST MEETING
Missouri welcomed No. 7 Georgia to Columbia last September for its first ever game as a member of the SEC. The Tigers played the Dawgs tough in the first half, limiting UGA to nine points offensively through two quarters and taking a 10-9 advantage into the break. The teams traded scores in the third quarter before Georgia eventually seized control and ran away with a 41-20 win on the road. Todd Gurley and Ken Malcome punched in rushing touchdowns in the fourth quarter that helped the Bulldogs distance themselves from the Tigers, and Aaron Murray ended the night with 242 yards and three touchdown passes.
PLAYMAKERS – OFFENSE
Georgia – Aaron Murray, Quarterback, Senior
Georgia entered last weekend’s game at Tennessee already feeling the sting of several injuries, and things got even worse for the Bulldogs in Knoxville. Already playing without its top rusher and receiver, UGA suffered injuries to its second-leading rusher and its second and third-leading receivers. Playing with a patchwork offensive lineup, Murray seemingly willed the Bulldogs to an overtime win that included a touchdown drive to tie late in the fourth quarter. Murray will be without several of his top weapons once again this weekend, and the Dawgs would like to avoid another scare like the one they experienced at Neyland Stadium last week. Murray is the most experienced quarterback in college football with 46 career starts, and he became the SEC’s all-time leading passer last week against Tennessee, so there is no better signal-caller to weather a storm of injuries than UGA’s senior leader. Even without their stars at running back and wide-out, the Bulldogs still managed over 430 yards of offense against the Vols. Murray and company will be facing a Missouri defense currently surrendering over 400 yards per game.
Mizzou – James Franklin, Quarterback, Senior
Franklin has put together a stellar season to this point. The senior quarterback is averaging 337 yards of total offense per game through five contests, putting him behind only Johnny Manziel in the SEC’s total offense hierarchy. Franklin has thrown for 281 yards per game and added 55 yards per game on the ground, totaling 15 touchdowns (13 passing and two rushing) while being picked off only three times. He has forged great chemistry with receivers Dorial Green-Beckham (364 yards, four TDs) and L’Damian Washington (340 yards, five TDs), and he has the Tigers undefeated through five games after winning just five total games last season. Franklin’s all-around production is a big reason why Mizzou’s offense is one of only eight in the nation that ranks in the top 32 in both rushing and passing, averaging over 285 yards through the air and 255 on the ground in an incredibly balanced attack. Georgia’s defense, which allows 5.8 yards per play (85th in college football), will have its hands full with Franklin this weekend.
PLAYMAKERS – DEFENSE
Georgia – Ramik Wilson, Inside Linebacker, Junior
Wilson enters Saturday’s contest as the SEC’s leading tackler, having racked up 52 stops through five games for the Bulldogs defense. He’s fresh off a career performance last week in Knoxville that included 15 tackles and a sack in Georgia’s overtime triumph. Alongside fellow inside ’backer Amarlo Herrera, who is fifth in the league with 47 tackles after racking up 11 stops against Tennessee, Wilson is averaging 10.4 tackles per game in 2013 to lead a defensive unit that has given up its share of points despite its 4-1 record. Wilson is one of many new faces that the Georgia defense has had to employ this season, but the Dawgs have shown improvement and have also come up with stops when it matters in recent weeks (notably at the end of the LSU win and in overtime at Tennessee). With a balanced attack coming to town from Missouri, Wilson and the Bulldogs will need to play well to ensure a fifth victory for UGA.
Mizzou – Michael Sam, Defensive End, RS Senior
Sam has a knack for getting to the ball and making disruptive plays for the Missouri defense. He is currently tied for the SEC lead with six sacks on the season, and he leads the league in tackles for loss with 10. For his career, Sam now sits at 27.5 tackles for loss to go along with 15.5 sacks, but he will be going up against a Georgia offensive line that has protected Aaron Murray well to this point, allowing only seven sacks. If Sam is able to pressure Murray and disrupt plays in the backfield this weekend – as he did against Vandy with three sacks last week – he could make life even tougher for a Bulldog offense that has been hit hard by injuries. Coach Pinkel had high praise for the pass rusher at his weekly presser, noting that Sam’s stellar play raises the level of the entire Mizzou defense. “I think right now he is not only playing steady, but he is playing at a very high level,” Pinkel said. “That is the difference now. He is playing at a different level than he has ever accomplished before. I could not be more pleased with his progress.”
• Georgia enters Saturday’s game in the midst of a 15-game home winning streak, the third-longest streak in school history and the longest active streak in the SEC.
• Missouri is currently the least penalized team in the conference, only being flagged four times per game through five contests in 2013.
• Mizzou currently leads the SEC in rushing, and is one of only five teams in college football averaging 255 yards or more per game on the ground and 285-plus through the air, joining Baylor, Oregon, Washington and UCLA in that statistical stratosphere.
• Saturday marks the 84th anniversary of Georgia’s inaugural contest at Sanford Stadium. On Oct. 12, 1929, the Bulldogs shut out Yale 15-0 in their first ever game Between the Hedges.
• Georgia is 72-32 in SEC games under Mark Richt, including a 42-20 mark in games against foes from the Eastern Division.
• With a win, Missouri would start 6-0 for the first time since the 2010 season, a campaign that brought Mizzou a Big 12 North Co-Championship and 10-3 record.