COLUMBIA, S.C. -- The most damaging byproduct of Georgia’s inability to move the ball on the ground Saturday against South Carolina was the regular third-and-long situations that made life rough on Bulldogs quarterback Aaron Murray.
Considering how often Murray and the Bulldogs faced third-and-8 or longer, it’s no surprise that South Carolina’s talented defensive line was able to harass Georgia’s junior signal-caller throughout the game, leading to a 35-7 Gamecocks win.
“You’ve got to make those plays when you’ve got a chance and try to get them on their heels and we could not do that,” Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said. “You can’t ask anybody to just constantly on third down-and-long or second-and-long to protect. There’s just too much pressure. We couldn’t get the running game going tonight and it hurt us.”
Georgia finished the night 7-for-16 on third down, and 10 of those plays came from third-and-8 situations or worse. Six of them -- including each of the last five -- were from third-and-11 or longer, and that’s no way to move the ball consistently against a defense that includes Jadeveon Clowney and Devin Taylor storming off the edge.
“They did a great job defensively of putting us in that situation of having third-and-long and that’s not really where you want to be,” said Murray, who was 11-for-31 for 109 yards and an interception in one of the worst statistical performances of his career. “I don’t know exactly what was going on. I know we had our shots. I know we weren’t executing when we had them.”
Georgia’s vaunted rushing attack -- led by freshmen Todd Gurley, who came in as the SEC’s top rusher, and Keith Marshall -- accounted for 18 yards on 17 carries in the first half as the Gamecocks built a 21-0 lead at intermission.
South Carolina defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward credited his players on the edge for hemming in Georgia’s tailbacks on the outside runs that had been so effective this season, forcing them toward the middle.
“We made a conscious effort to not let them get on the outside,” Ward said. “If you go back and watch them in every ballgame they played, they make their plays by getting on the perimeter. We had a conscious effort to keep them on the inside.”
It wasn’t just the runs by Gurley and Marshall that the Gamecocks stopped early in possessions, however. Bobo attempted a mixture of run and pass on first down and neither option was particularly effective.
Through five games, the Bulldogs led the FBS with an average of 9.6 yards per play on first down, while South Carolina was 13th nationally by allowing just 4.2 yards per play on first down. The Gamecocks did even better than that Saturday, however.
The Bulldogs snapped the ball 27 times in first-down situations and finished with 60 yards on those plays, including penalties -- good for an average of 2.2 yards per play.
By cutting back Georgia’s productivity on first and second downs, South Carolina forced Georgia into third-down situations where it was obvious the Bulldogs’ only valid option was to pass. And that’s exactly what the Gamecocks wanted, allowing Clowney and company to attack Murray at full speed.
Clowney -- two tackles for loss, one sack -- led a defensive front that contributed 4.5 of South Carolina’s six tackles for loss, two sacks and numerous quarterback hurries where they forced an antsy Murray to throw before he was ready.
In short, Ward’s plan worked perfectly.
“You can’t be in third-and-longs against a defense like that,” Bobo said. “I’ve been saying all [night] that we were poor on first and second down, running and throwing. There were times we had guys open and we didn’t hit them, times they were open and we dropped it, times we didn’t protect against a four-man front. There wasn’t a lot of blitzing tonight and we just did not execute. And you’ve got to give those guys credit.”