Georgia's young season has been a tale of two games, a loss to Clemson and a win against South Carolina. The differences between those two games are vast.
The first game was on the road, the second at home. The opener pitted the Dawgs’ young defense against one of the most prolific offenses in the country, but the second was against a more manageable Gamecocks attack. Georgia lost the turnover battle in Clemson, but won it in Athens.
To be fair, all of these elements contributed to the outcome of Georgia’s first two games. The most important difference between Georgia’s loss to Clemson and its win against South Carolina, however, was offensive line play.
Georgia’s defense is just as young as advertised (with only three returning starters), and although many are optimistic that it will improve, success for this team will rest squarely on the shoulders of the Bulldogs' offense.
Senior quarterback Aaron Murray is relied upon to distribute the ball to a host of talented wide receivers and tight ends, while sophomore Todd Gurley is expected to do much of the leg work from his running back position.
Offensive coordinator Mike Bobo is fortunate to have two such talented athletes around which to build Georgia’s typically balanced game plan. Murray ranks eighth in the nation in passer efficiency (194.8) and places third in yards per pass attempt (12.2). Meanwhile, Gurley ranks sixth in the country in rushing yards per game.
Either player could ultimately end up in New York City as a Heisman Trophy candidate if Georgia continues its offensive success. But Murray and Gurley are only as good as their offensive line.
Heading into the season, there was little doubt about the strength of this line. Offensive line coach Will Friend told Seth Emerson of the Macon Telegraph that Georgia had eight players ready to play along the line from Day 1:
We'll play guys. Those eight we feel like they can play, and we'll play them. Obviously if somebody's not getting the job done it may mean you get off your schedule a little bit. But we don't have any problem with playing those guys.
Indeed, this eight-man unit boasts not only numbers, but also experience.
The Struggle is Real
Reserve offensive lineman Watts Dantzler is a bit of a Twitter sensation. Grantland.com’s Holly Anderson once called Dantzler a “social media national treasure.” If one enjoys snarky, fraternity-style humor with a hint of college football, Dantzler is the way to go. Along those lines, one of his preferred witticisms is a playful insistence that “the struggle is real.”
Unfortunately, for Murray and the rest of the Bulldogs' offense, the struggle was all too real against Clemson. And this time, it was not a laughing matter.
The Bulldogs' line opened the game on a bad note, thanks to a false start on the Dawgs' first play from scrimmage. In total, the unit was flagged six times for 44 yards.
During the first quarter, the Georgia offense seemed to click on back-to-back 75-yard scoring drives. But, the big men up front faltered repeatedly in a second quarter that saw Murray sacked three times en route to coughing up the football twice (once on a fumble, once on an interception).
Murray was sacked again during the team’s opening possession of the second half as protection continued to be an issue in the passing game.
The ground attack was equally unsuccessful for much of the game. Gurley broke a 75-yard run on his first carry of the game, but Georgia's remaining 40 carries yielded less than than 3.7 yards per attempt. On 22 occasions, Bulldogs runners ran for three or fewer yards.
The offense disappointed in the opening loss to Clemson, and the offensive line was to blame.
There were times where we looked like we were in the first grade out there. We were getting out of position, and there were a couple of holding calls that really hurt us, and some pass protection issues that we just didn’t handle very well. It just wasn’t a consistent enough effort to do what we really needed to do and put more points on the board.
His frustrations and those of Bulldog Nation were compounded by the fact that the Tigers are hardly known for their defensive prowess. A general uneasiness surrounded the Bulldog program as concerns about the offensive line were exacerbated by the upcoming matchup with one of the most feared players in the country, South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney.
Leading up to the second game, the Georgia offense prepared to avoid and isolate Clowney on both passing and running plays. Meanwhile, Friend shuffled a few starters and vigorously prepared for the Heisman candidate.
The result was a far cry from the disaster that occurred just seven days earlier. Clowney and the South Carolina defense had their moments, but for the first time since last season’s 48-3 win over Vanderbilt, Georgia’s offense racked up more than 500 yards and scored more than 40 points without yielding a single turnover.
Murray connected on 17 of his 23 passes while throwing for 309 yards and four touchdowns. Gurley caught one of those touchdown tosses while adding another score on the ground and 134 yards rushing.
Murray and Gurley may garner the headlines, attention and awards, but both stars are simply visible reflections of the foundation that this offensive line builds. This offense—no matter how fast or slow— moves with its center, guards and tackles.
And that’s perfectly fine with the veteran leaders of the offensive line.
David Andrews offered the following to Emerson of the Macon Telegraph after the big win against South Carolina:
There were a lot of naysayers. We did some bad things last week, but people didn't see good things that we did. So people doubted us and that's where we like to be. We like to be doubted because that's motivation. We didn't change anything different from last week. We just played football and we kicked tail.
He wasn’t the only one who noticed a contrast between Weeks 1 and 2. Gurley gave credit where due following the defeat of the Gamecocks, telling Emerson, “They were good. We ran the ball way more this game than we did last game. They just keep improving every day, every day.”
If those improvements continue, this offensive line will take Georgia a long way.