ATHENS -- Chris Wilson and Will Friend talk about their units in different ways. Wilson is cheery and talks about playing an elephant if he could. Friend is gruff but blunt, saving his laughter for regretful moments.
But these two Georgia assistant coaches were facing similar challenges a month ago. And they have succeeded in pretty similar ways.
There are a lot of reasons that the Georgia football team has won three games in a row, including two wins over top-10 teams, after a season-opening loss at Clemson. But one difference stands out the most between that loss and the next three games: the way the Bulldogs have played at the line of scrimmage, on both sides of the ball.
Wilson coaches Georgia’s defensive line, which was gashed in the second half of that Clemson game. Friend coaches the offensive line, which had an even worse game.
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Since then, they’ve both turned it around. The run defense is the surprising strength of Georgia’s defense, which otherwise has struggled. The offensive line has been remarkably better in the wins over South Carolina and LSU.
“I tell my guys, ‘We’ve gotta outplay our opponents’ defense every week,’ ” Wilson said. “And that’s what it came down to last week, and the week before, and the week we didn’t win, against Clemson. It was that same thing.”
Georgia’s offensive and defensive lines each had a little to do with that, but the contrast between the first game and the next three is stark:
Run defense: Clemson averaged 4.3 yards per rush. In the ensuing three games, Georgia’s opponents have averaged just 3.0 yards per carry.
The offensive line: Clemson sacked Aaron Murray four times. The line has given up just three sacks during the past three games, and two of those were to South Carolina, a pretty good mark considering the talent there, namely Jadeveon Clowney.
Georgia’s own running game, another measure of the offensive line, has statistically been about the same, but in that Clemson game any success was largely the result of tailback Todd Gurley’s brilliance. In the wins over South Carolina and LSU, there was an obvious improved push by Georgia’s line and better holes to run through.
“We have a great offensive line,” said sophomore tailback Keith Marshall, who had enough room to rush for 90 yards in a game in which Gurley got hurt.
It remains debatable whether that offensive line is truly great -- or even good. But it has been better, as has the defensive line, for the same two reasons: substitutions.
Eight different players saw action on the offensive line in Saturday’s game, and nine played the week before against North Texas. Friend used six different lineup combinations, part of a strategy this year to push players by using playing time as a carrot.
It’s hard to pinpoint one reason why they played better. But whatever it is, Georgia has benefited greatly.
“They need to know that they’re always competing,” Friend said after Tuesday’s practice. “We’re not where we want to be, and we’ve gotta have some competition to get us to the point to try to get close to that.”