Auburn’s motivation in Saturday’s game is rooted in BCS National Championship aspirations. If the Tigers can get past the Bulldogs, they’ll move to 10-1 overall with a season-closing showdown with Alabama taking place after an off week. A win against the Crimson Tide would send Auburn back to the SEC Championship Game for the first time since 2010, and the Tigers would likely be favored against a host of SEC East candidates.
For Georgia, the motivation this weekend is much more concise: Stop Nick Marshall. There is no looking ahead. There are no harebrained long-term scenarios. There is simply a desire to stop Marshall.
Containing Marshall, who was dismissed from Georgia’s team in 2012, would be a moral victory for the Bulldogs on an emotional level. More importantly however, containing Marshall will likely give the Dawgs their seventh win in the last eight years against Auburn. After all, as Nick Marshall goes, so goes the Tigers’ offense. And he typically goes on the ground.
Auburn ranks 12th in the Southeastern Conference at just over 173 passing yards per game. The Tiger ground attack on the other hand is tops in the conference at 320 yards per outing. No team in the SEC favors the ground attack to the extent of Auburn. Missouri, the conference’s second leading rush attack comes in at nearly 85 fewer yards per game than Gus Malzahn's Tigers.
So is there any hope for a young Georgia defense that has traditionally struggled against the run under defensive coordinator Todd Grantham? Fortunately, Georgia’s defense has held up quite well against the run, and at 126 rushing yards allowed per game, this unit’s run-stopping capabilities much more closely resemble the stout 2011 Georgia defense than last year’s squad that gave up 239 or more yards in each of its last four games.
|Year||Yards Allowed Per Game||Yards Allowed Per Carry|
Interestingly enough, this much-maligned unit out of Athens will be the best rushing defense the Tigers have faced all season. Mississippi State, the previous holder of that distinction, ranks 33rd in the nation in the category while Georgia ranks 20th. It's also worth noting that a healthy portion of Auburn’s rushing yards have come against some of the nation’s worst run-stopping units.
|Opponent||Run Defense Rank||Rushing Yards by Auburn|
The challenge for Georgia this week is a bit unique. The Bulldogs’ struggles against mobile quarterbacks have been on full display over recent years. Those deficiencies, however, have come against quarterbacks with more developed passing pedigrees and slightly less athleticism than Marshall. Players like Connor Shaw, Tajh Boyd and James Franklin have had success against the Dawgs, but their ability to move the ball has been a byproduct of a balanced offensive attack.
Auburn’s play-calling is a far cry from congruent. While Marshall has had big passing games (339 yards against Mississippi State stands out), he’s thrown just 16 passes over the past three games and accounted for just 163 yards through the air. Over that same period, he’s run 29 times for 346 yards.
On a broader scale, Auburn has only passed on 29.27 percent of all offensive plays this season. And while it’s possible that the Tigers could go in a different direction, it seems unlikely given the success they’ve had in winning games with a ground mentality. That bodes well for Georgia’s defense.
The Dawgs are weak in the secondary, but strong up front. While the Bulldogs rank 17th in the nation in sacks, that is hardly the only indicator of a successful front seven. The physical play of the defensive line and linebackers has also led to improvements in limiting first downs on the ground. This season, Georgia’s opponents have picked up just 6.33 rushing first downs per game; last year that number was 10.21. Similarly, Georgia’s competition is averaging just 3.33 runs in excess of 10 yards per game. Last year opponents picked up 5.86 long runs per game.
Combine the success of the front seven with Josh Harvey-Clemons, a physical safety who enjoys playing against the run, the Bulldogs should be able to effectively stack the box. Harvey-Clemons registered 15 total tackles against LSU earlier in this season when he spent time closer to the line of scrimmage. One should expect that he’ll be in the thick of things once again this weekend.
Furthermore, this Auburn attack plays perfectly into the strength of Georgia’s veteran defensive leaders. Senior defensive end Garrison Smith is at his best against the run as are experienced linebackers Amarlo Herrera and Ramik Wilson.
Emotions will run high for both teams in this game. Nick Marshall undoubtedly wants to beat the Bulldogs just as badly as they want to ruin his dream season. But ultimately this portion of the battle will come down to Auburn’s strong running game and Georgia’s dense rush defense in a battle of physicality. If Georgia can negate the ground attack, particularly Marshall, the still-developing quarterback will be forced to throw the ball.
If that happens, it could end up being one of his old partners from Georgia’s defensive backfield that steps up and makes a play. Earlier this week, Georgia cornerback Damian Swann told Seth Emerson of the Macon Telegraph that he’s “proud” of how Marshall has progressed at Auburn.
He'd be even prouder to help close the game out with a big play. A host of other Georgia defenders would love to contribute to that cause.