Georgia’s run defense is a unit that has been questioned and tested in 2018.
The Bulldogs rank eighth in the SEC in rushing yards allowed, surrendering 140.5 yards per game. Georgia was gashed for 275 rushing yards in a loss to LSU two weeks ago and still gave up 170 yards on the ground in Saturday’s bounce-back win over Florida.
And in this coming Saturday’s de facto SEC East title game against 11th-ranked Kentucky, the Bulldog run defense will face its toughest test yet. Kentucky star running back Benny Snell Jr. is eighth in the country in rushing yards with 935 and leads a Wildcat rushing attack that gains 214 yards per game.
“They have one of the premier guys in the country toting the ball, who's probably the best I've ever seen with his vision,” Georgia head coach Kirby Smart said of Snell. “I mean, he never misses a hole. He sets his blockers up, and he does not want to be tackled. You have to go in with a willingness to be more physical than him.”
One of the nation’s best backs, Snell has stepped up to carry a Kentucky offense that has been one dimensional for stretches this season. He rushed for 175 yards in the Wildcats’ major road upset of Florida on Sept. 8. The junior runner had another monster game with 165 yards and four rushing touchdowns against Mississippi State on Sept. 22, a team that ranks second in the SEC in rushing yards allowed per game.
"[Kentucky has] one of the premier guys in the country toting the ball, who's probably the best I've ever seen with his vision."
- Kirby Smart, Georgia head coach
Snell has rushed for over 125 yards in four of Kentucky’s eight games and has been efficient with his carries, as he is sporting a 5.2 yards per carry average. His violent running style has garnered national attention, as he has led one of Kentucky’s best seasons of the last 50 years.
"He's a hard runner and a tough, tough football player, first and foremost,” Georgia junior defensive back Tyrique McGhee said. “The guy, he loves football and you can see it with the energy he brings every Saturday. He's going to be the motor and engine to that offense coming in Saturday."
While much of the focus will be on Snell on Saturday, Kentucky’s running attack is so effective, in part, because of the quarterback that joins him in the backfield.
Sophomore quarterback Terry Wilson is likely the most dangerous runner at the position the Bulldogs have faced to his point. He has rushed for 406 yards on 88 carries, good for a 4.6 average, and three touchdowns. His size (6-foot-3, 205 pounds) and speed combination adds another layer for the Wildcat rushing attack.
Wilson has been limited as a passer, though. He has completed 65.4 percent of his passes for 988 yards, but has thrown just five touchdowns, six interceptions and was benched during Kentucky last game against Missouri.
But he showed resiliency in that game, as he re-entered the game and led a dramatic game-winning touchdown drive to complete a wild Kentucky comeback. He went 22-for-31 for 267 yards and a touchdown against the Tigers, and his mobility could provide some problems for a shaky Georgia run defense.
"It's difficult but it's not nothing we can't handle,” McGhee said. “Their quarterback, he can run the ball just as well as the running back. He is like a second running back to them. Everybody is going to have to play their gaps, make sure we keep him in the pocket and just do everything we can to hold that running game to a minimum."
Georgia opened as a double-digit favorite against the Wildcats. Kentucky’s offense has struggled at times this season and is tied for last in the conference in points per game.
But the Wildcat’s run game could play right into Georgia’s most glaring weaknesses, and Georgia must be sharp if it hopes to return to Atlanta for the SEC title game.
“We're just going to keep working at it,” Smart said. “That's all we know how to do, and there are no magical defenses that we can call that say, this defense stops every run. It's not. You have to physically whip a man in front of you, get off a block and go make the tackle.”