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Run defense faces stiff test

ATHENS, Ga. -- With a third of the season in the books, Georgia's defensive results against the run yield obvious questions.

Should fans expect the stout run defense the Bulldogs (2-2, 1-1 SEC) played in three of their four games, limiting opponents to fewer than 4 yards per carry and 100 rushing yards in the last two games? Or was their 253-yard allowance against South Carolina, where Heisman Trophy contender Marcus Lattimore eventually wore them down, closer to the Bulldogs' true identity?

Saturday's game could provide the answer, as visiting Mississippi State (2-2, 0-2) will bring a physical, run-first offense to Sanford Stadium.

"They run a lot, and we know they run a lot, and we're just going to get ready and strap up for a bloody type game," Georgia defensive end Cornelius Washington said. "They're going to come out and they're going to try to pound us, but we're ready for it."

Just last weekend, Georgia faced one of the bigger offensive lines it will see this season, but Mississippi was not a factor on the ground, rushing 26 times for 34 yards. Mississippi State, which got a 109-yard rushing performance from quarterback Chris Relf and 64 more from running back Vick Ballard in last season's win against Georgia, should provide more of a challenge.

"We've definitely got one of those games where we've got to roll up our sleeves and get after it," Georgia coach Mark Richt said. "Thankfully, I think we've played more physical to this point than we maybe did a year ago."

That point is obvious, and it's because the massive nose guard tandem of Kwame Geathers and John Jenkins has eaten up space in the center of the defensive line, freeing the ends and linebackers to make more plays.

"They're making a dramatic impact on the team right now," defensive end Abry Jones said. "I think they're really helping me and DeAngelo [Tyson, the other starting defensive end] and pretty much boosting our play right now, just being the great forces that they are."

While the Georgia defense's improved physicality is evident, it might be too early to anoint the Bulldogs as effective run stoppers. Thanks mostly to South Carolina's big rushing total, the Bulldogs rank 42nd in the nation against the run, allowing 119.75 yards per game.

The Gamecocks' 253 yards are by far the most Georgia has allowed on the ground. However, 68 of those yards came on a fake punt touchdown run when the defense wasn't even on the field.

There is less of an excuse for the yards they surrendered to Lattimore, who had more difficulty against the Bulldogs than he did in gashing them for 182 yards in 2010. He still finished with 176 yards and salted away the win with tough runs in the fourth quarter.

After three quarters of being held largely in check -- he had 14 carries for 82 yards through the first three periods and no run longer than 16 yards -- Lattimore dominated the fourth.

He ran 13 times for 94 yards in the final quarter alone, including a 36-yard run that set up his 3-yard touchdown plunge that gave the Gamecocks a 38-35 lead. And on the Gamecocks' final drive, when they needed one first down to put away the win, they handed the ball to Lattimore three times and he finally got the necessary first down with an 8-yard burst on third-and-3.

"We weren't going to forget about him," South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said after the game. "He gives us our best chance to win. At the beginning, there wasn't much room to run there because Georgia's line was able to stuff us. It opened up some in the second half, and he was able to move the ball."

With that performance in mind, what would be a reasonable expectation when Georgia faces the remaining elite rushing teams on its schedule?

Saturday's game should be an indicator -- and Richt believes the big men up front will be the biggest difference-makers. If Mississippi State finds running room up the middle and Georgia's defenders don't effectively man the proper gaps, Richt foresees an unpleasant afternoon.

"The big key is going to be, will we free those guys up to make some hits? Then when it does come that there's a lead blocker on them or a lineman on them, they do have to fit properly and try to get things to bounce outside," Richt said. "That's what you hope to do with a team like this. But if they start splitting you vertically, you're in trouble. Your safeties are trying to make tackles, and it's going to be a long day."

David Ching covers University of Georgia sports for DawgNation. He can be reached at davidchingespn@gmail.com.