As Georgia’s passing woes have tentatively dispersed, its most relied upon threat has disappeared.
During Wednesday’s SEC coaches teleconference, head coach Kirby Smart fielded a question about where he thought Georgia had improved the most now in Week 10 of the season. He began by speaking on the Bulldogs’ special team’s play — a unit with the nation’s second-best net punting and third-best kickoff return averages — before shifting focus toward the offense.
“[We’ve been] explosive in the pass game,” Smart said. “We’ve made some more plays with the receivers down field. We’ve protected the quarterback well, but we did that as well last year.”
And that was it. There was no mention of Georgia’s running backs or the offensive line’s run-blocking ability. Smart didn’t compliment or speak on Georgia’s rushing attack at all, which is odd for the head coach of a program known for its commanding ground game.
Yet it’s fitting after the Bulldogs finished with 8 rushing yards against Mississippi State. Running backs Zamir White, James Cook and Kenny McIntosh combined to average 1.83 rushing yards per carry with zero touchdowns in Georgia’s 31-24 victory.
“[Mississippi State] kicked our butt. That’s the bottom line.” Smart said during Saturday’s virtual postgame press conference.
Including against Mississippi State, only seven times has Georgia finished a game under 100 rushing yards since Smart’s first season as head coach in 2016. In those seven games, the Bulldogs are 2-5.
Trying to figure out how offensive coordinator Todd Monken will use his running backs is nearly impossible. After receiving 26 carries for 136 rushing yards against Kentucky, White’s usage in Georgia’s offense has seemingly vanished. He finished with 107 rushing yards against Florida, but on just seven carries, and this was after his 75-yard touchdown run on the game’s first play.
White received 11 carries against Mississippi State and 13 carries against Arkansas, but he’s also finished with 19 against Auburn and 22 against Tennessee. It’s either rely on White or avoid him.
Even Cook, after totaling 117 and 101 yards against Alabama and Kentucky, has suddenly seen his production decline. He’s averaging 24 total yards per game since facing the Wildcats.
However, Georgia’s matchup with South Carolina on Saturday works in the rushing game’s favor. A team that ranks 11th in the SEC in rushing defense and 66th overall, the Gamecocks are giving up 166.4 rushing yards per game this season. South Carolina has allowed more than 200 rushing yards in a single game three times this season. It almost added another against Ole Miss on Nov. 14 by allowing 195 rushing yards.
There’s no need to go further. To put it modestly, South Carolina’s rush defense isn’t even average. If Georgia’s rushing struggles continue this week, it might not matter how well quarterback JT Daniels performs because questions about Georgia’s rushing attack will only mount.
The first question might go something like this: What’s the identity?
Georgia doesn’t seem to have one. It’s as if the Bulldogs can’t piece everything together at once. But Georgia’s only had one game with Daniels under center. If the redshirt sophomore continues to play at the same level he did against Mississippi State, it should help Georgia’s rushing attack.
“I feel like the passing game with JT back there is going to help us open up the run game more than what it had been,” said senior offensive lineman Justin Shaffer on Monday. “You’ve got to respect the pass and the run now with the quarterback that we have back there now.”