ATHENS -- Amarlo Herrera, the unofficial captain of Georgia’s defense, was asked this week if anybody had laid into the team after the opening-week loss. Herrera shook his head, but then he smiled.
“It’ll be a time before the game,” the junior linebacker said. “You’ll hear before the game. It’ll be a spark.”
“It’ll be before we walk out there,” Herrera said, still smiling. “You’ll hear it.”
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Still, the Bulldogs did not feel they needed any emotional kick-in-the-butt after losing to Clemson. The fact that they next host South Carolina should be enough.
Never mind that Georgia wants to end a three-game losing streak to the Gamecocks and avenge last year’s embarrassing defeat. This game sets up to be the most important of the season for Georgia, a chance to hold on to its national title aspirations and a chance to get an immediate edge in the SEC East.
“It’s a huge game,” Georgia tackle John Theus said. “Whoever wins this game has a huge chance to win the East.”
If emotion is an issue, then winning will be an issue for Georgia. Otherwise, here are what figure to be the keys for Georgia:
The O-line steps up its game
Georgia left tackle Kenarious Gates’ eyes opened wide Monday evening as a horde members of media descended on the seat he had just taken.
“Whoo, I got everybody,” Gates said.
He was asked if he’d rather talk to all this media or block Jadeveon Clowney.
“No, I’d rather be talking with my teammates,” Gates said, smiling.
Gates probably would rather be anywhere than where he will be Saturday, the first line of defense against Clowney, who has made mincemeat of Georgia linemen -- including Gates -- the past two years. Georgia is likely to employ some tailbacks and fullbacks to help Gates.
But the entire line has to play better than it did in the 38-35 loss at Clemson. There were four sacks, more plays with protection issues, not much running room and numerous drive-killing penalties.
That was against a weaker front seven than Gates and company will face Saturday. If the Bulldogs don’t play better, they almost certainly will lose. And when Murray gets hit by Clowney, or any other defender, he can’t fumble.
“When I feel pressure, I’ve gotta secure it better,” Murray said.
A near-perfect game from Aaron Murray
Georgia’s senior quarterback gets too much blame for losses in big games, with most of the responsibility falling on the offensive line (or his defense). But Murray was at fault for his lone interception last week, and he admitted that better touch on a few more throws could have resulted in longer gains.
The loss of star receiver Malcolm Mitchell will hurt, but Murray played most of the Clemson game without Mitchell. The receiving corps is deep, and tailback Todd Gurley’s presence will keep South Carolina from keying on the pass.
So when Murray has a chance to make a big throw, he needs to hit it.
Stopping Connor Shaw from running
This has been the underrated factor in the past two losses to South Carolina, especially last year. Shaw, who is South Carolina’s senior quarterback, rushed for 78 yards last year, including a touchdown. Several times he scrambled to extend drives, which proved back-breaking for the Georgia defense.
And Shaw only attempted 10 passes in last year’s game. He still managed to accrue 186 yards.
Shaw extends so many plays with his feet, whether it’s scrambling or making time for a receiver to get open. Georgia needs to force Shaw to make more throws from the pocket.
The return of Josh Harvey-Clemons from a one-game suspension will help Georgia do that. The safety-linebacker will be a check on Shaw’s running ability when he can, and look for the Bulldogs to use more players to try to close off the outside running lanes.
No more mistakes, period
Georgia did a lot of things wrong last week, but ultimately it still only lost by three points. The difference proved to be two turnovers, a botched field goal snap and all those penalties. Clemson played largely mistake-free and thus won the game.
During this three-game losing streak to the Gamecocks, the Bulldogs’ best performance came two years ago in Athens. They lost a 45-42 game that could have gone either way, but Georgia was felled by a missed field goal, a Murray fumble after a Clowney sack and a fake punt touchdown by South Carolina.
This time, the best bet is another close game decided by who makes the least errors.
“Some good things happened, some bad things happened,” receiver Michael Bennett said of the Clemson game. “We’ve gotta play a more complete game all around, all positions. So if we fix those penalties, fix some turnovers, catching the ball all the time, we’ll put a complete game together, and I don’t think we’ll have any problem.”