Running the ball is hard in the SEC.
That has become one of Kirby Smart’s favorite mantras as the season has progressed, and there’s a reason for that. In the last four games against conference opponents, the Bulldogs have rushed for 191 yards per game — still very good, but nothing like the numbers the team put up earlier in the year.
It’s not easy to start gashing teams right away in the SEC; instead, offenses have to wear opponents down in order to run the ball when needed in the fourth quarter.
“You don’t just walk in the SEC and move people early in the game,” Smart said on Oct. 22, the Tuesday after Georgia defeated Kentucky 21-0. “It just doesn’t happen. You’re not just road grading folks out of there. It’s a cumulative effect that it takes. We certainly had a cumulative effect because we ran it better later than earlier.”
The Bulldogs are now in the heart of the schedule, with four straight SEC games and Georgia Tech to close the year. They won the first of the stretch against Florida but now, more than ever, they need the run game to continue to wear down its opponents as the game and season rolls along.
Perhaps no game shows this effect more than that Oct. 19 contest against Kentucky. On a rainy and windy night in Athens, the offense ran for 95 yards in the first half.
After halftime, however, the run game really got rolling. Georgia racked up 140 rushing yards and three rushing touchdowns after halftime en route to a 21-0 victory.
“That’s our main goal is to win the fourth quarter and wear them out before we do,” tight end Eli Wolf said. “We take pride in being tough and well-conditioned. So yeah, it is awesome when you can feel yourself still have energy and them start to give out a little bit.”
Georgia tried to do the same in the most recent game against Florida, but the talented Gators front held up well. The Bulldogs ran for 74 yards on 20 carries in the first half and 45 yards on 17 carries after the intermission.
Smart said that was the toughest challenge the ground game has faced, and the stats indeed show the lowest rushing yardage total on the season. Still, 37 attempts shows the Bulldogs were still committed to wearing down the Florida front.
“I don’t think you ever just stick with something to bang your head against the wall,” Smart said. “If you’re not successful doing it, you can’t abandon it totally. But you’ve got to do what works and you’ve got to have enough change ups to keep them honest. I think we always try to do that.”
While the yardage total wasn’t what it was against Kentucky, the time of possession battle swung heavily in favor of Georgia.
The Bulldogs possessed the ball for nearly 36 minutes, keeping their defense off the field and Florida’s on it. Smart said winning that battle is one of the team’s goals every week, and they definitely succeeded in that area in Jacksonville. In the process, they helped tire out the Gators defense.
“It shows that we’re executing,” tight end Charlie Woerner said. “It’s hard to have long drives because usually something messes up or something like that. To have that long of a drive, it really shows off that we’ve been practicing really hard and getting better at executing our plays.”
So, what does it feel like going against a team that’s wearing down as the game goes along?
Woerner demonstrated by hitting his two closed fists together. For the first quarter, the fists crashed together in a stalemate. In the second quarter, one fist pushed the other back just a bit.
“By the fourth, though, you’re finally hitting them and they’re starting to move back a little bit,” Woerner said. “Then you’re starting to get those big, big runs.”
With what the Bulldogs have coming up, wearing down the opponent’s defense will take on an even bigger role. Saturday’s opponent, the Missouri Tigers, allows 137 rushing yards per game, good for 41st in the country. Auburn is tied for 19th at just under 113 yards per game, and even Texas A&M is 49th nationally at 142 yards per game.
For Woerner, the formula for success against those teams is simple.
“That’s been something Coach Smart’s been trying to ingrain in us since I got here to impose your will on our opponents and for them to not want to play us again,” Woerner said. “It’s just Georgia, man. Run the ball, you know?”