Georgia’s run defense was supposed to be a sense of pride this season.
The defense returned almost the entire unit from last year’s group that ranked in the top five in the country. The Bulldogs allowed 101.2 yards per game on the ground, and just over three yards per carry.
No team ran for over 300 yards against them, and only South Carolina, LSU and Georgia Tech – who runs the triple option offense – put up 200 yards against Georgia’s front seven.
This season has been drastically different.
The defense has allowed 177.8 rushing yards per game with an average of over four per carry. Five teams have put up over 200 yards against the Bulldogs, and the last three opponents have surpassed the 300-yard mark.
Granted, two of Georgia’s last three opponents ran the triple option, but Alabama tallied 350 rushing yards in the SEC Championship Game which was an all-time record.
Head coach Mark Richt said one of the biggest issues for the defense against the Crimson Tide was its tackling.
"Some of it was just wrapping them up better,” he said. “I told them, ‘You're not going to be able to knock these guys down. If your goal is to knock them down … you're going to get embarrassed. You've got to wrap up and run your feet until you get them on the ground. Sometimes it might get ugly, but you have to be able to do that."
Nose tackle John Jenkins thought otherwise because of how close the game was. For him, it was simply a lack of defensive execution down the stretch.
“I don’t feel like anything was that bad because – think about it – the game was that close,” he said. “I felt like we had a great game plan and felt like we did good against the run. Granted, they had 300-something yards, but at the same time you couldn’t really tell looking at the scoreboard. I felt as if it was just a game you had to execute the right way. Any small form of not executing – well, you saw what happened.”
Now the Bulldogs must shift their attention to the Capital One Bowl, and another run-heavy team in the No. 16 Nebraska Cornhuskers.
The Big 10 Legends division champions have rushed for 3,308 yards this season, and average 254.5 yards on the ground per game.
“They run the ball extremely well,” Richt said. “They’ve got kind of a three-headed monster.”
The “three-headed monster” that Richt referred to is made up of quarterback Taylor Martinez, and the tandem tailbacks of Rex Burkhead and Ameer Abdullah.
Abdullah leads the bunch with 219 carries for 1,089 yards and eight touchdowns. The 5-foot-9, 185 pound sophomore also leads the team in kickoff and punt return yards.
“He’s very, very dangerous [and] very good at what he does,” Richt said. “Not a huge guy … but very fast, very explosive, very shifty.”
After Abdullah is Martinez. The junior quarterback has tallied 973 yards on 175 carries with 10 touchdowns. It’s no secret how versatile Martinez is, and his passer efficiency rating of 142.32 is a testament to that.
“[Martinez is a] very, very talented guy. He runs the ball and he’s a guy that can throw the ball well,” Richt said. “[He’s a] guy that is just dangerous.”
Burkhead rounds out the trio with 74 carries for 535 yards, and averages 7.2 per rush.
With one final test against a run-oriented team, the Bulldogs will have a chance for redemption against the Cornhuskers.
“We have something to prove. It’s a game of competitors,” Jenkins said. “You don’t want anybody to make their stats on you, I’m pretty sure they’d feel the same way. You don’t want to be known as somebody getting a bunch of stats on. That just hurts your pride being a competitor and a being a football player.”
Inside linebacker Michael Gilliard plans to leave it all on the field on Jan. 1 in his final game as a Bulldog.
“We’re definitely going to bring all of our guns for this game right here,” he said. “I feel like, as a defense, we’re definitely going to go all out just to redeem ourselves.”