In preparation for the Peach Bowl between the No. 4 Ohio Buckeyes and the No. 1 Georgia Bulldogs today, we chatted with Jeremy Attaway the managing editor of Dawg Sports, our SB Nation sibling site that covers UGA athletics.
LGHL: What do most people across the country get wrong about Stetson Bennett? His invitation to the Heisman Trophy ceremony was received mostly with jokes around the CFB Twittersphere, but he appeared to be far more dynamic than most casual fans give him credit for.
Dawg Sports: Bennett has developed a bit of a reputation as a “game manager.” In fact, he’s got a pretty strong riverboat gambler streak, often improvising with his legs and extending plays to make throws downfield. It’s even given rise to a nickname among Bulldog fans, who fret about occasional appearances by “Bad Stetson.” He’s kind of like Bad Santa, right down to the cigars, but with the addition of occasional ugly interceptions or strip fumbles from backside defenders.
LGHL: Ohio State’s offense lives and dies on its ability to throw the ball seemingly at will. While OSU’s passing game is substantially different from Tennessee’s, UGA shut down the Vols earlier this season. Do you think that they will run a similar scheme against the Buckeyes, or will they bring out a different plan for a less tempo-focused attack?
Dawg Sports: Kirby Smart conceded after the Tennessee game that Georgia really ran its base defense against Tennessee. The Bulldogs’ staff was confident that corners Kelee Ringo, Kamari Lassiter, Javon Bullard, and Tykee Smith could match up man-on against Tennessee’s receivers, jamming them at the line and relying on the pass rush to force premature or errant throws. By and large, that worked.
In fact, the only points of emphasis that varied from Georgia’s usual scheme were rushing to get lined up after each play and being mindful of rare substitution opportunities.
I don’t expect Smart and co-defensive coordinators Glenn Schuman and Will Muschamp to reinvent the wheel against Ohio State. They’ll rush four or five on most downs and play man with either one high or cover two safeties. Ohio State will likely have some shots open downfield as a result. You can’t put defenders on an island against dynamic playmakers like the Buckeyes have without somebody getting open.
But the calculated risk of the Georgia defense is that you won’t get the combination of a clean pocket, an out-of-position defender, and a QB and receiver both making the required play on more than a handful of occasions per game.
LGHL: Georgia has struggled a bit at times this season against obviously inferior opponents (Kent State, Missouri, Kentucky). Was that more about the Dawgs taking their foot off the gas (unlikely to happen on Saturday) or those teams doing something(s) that the Buckeyes can attempt to replicate in the Peach Bowl?
Dawg Sports: You know how all the major dictionaries this time of year release their “word of the year”, the one that sort of sums up the zeitgeist of the moment? Georgia’s phrase of the year has been “playing with their food.” The Red and Black have looked disinterested against lesser opponents. But the granular view of each of those games is a little different. Kent State hit some big plays and did some unexpected things schematically, but that game was never really in doubt.
Against Kentucky, the Bulldogs played it close to the vest offensively, built a 16-0 lead, then really throttled it down to prevent injuries and get out of a cold Lexington. The Missouri game, however, is the one that could be instructive as a blueprint for beating the ‘Dawgs. “Bad Stetson” made it out for that one, with some head-scratching throws and a costly fumble. It was one of two fumbles in the first half that likely took points off the board and contributed to a 16-6 halftime deficit.
The Bulldogs stormed back with 20 points in the second half, taking the lead with four minutes and change to go, but Bulldog fans have been cognizant ever since of the fact that this team is more of a danger to stop itself offensively than it is to be stopped by opponents (more on that below).
LGHL: Jalen Carter has missed some time this year, but still has seven tackles for loss and three sacks. Is there any way to stop him whatsoever?
Dawg Sports: If someone has found a way, they’ve kept it quiet. I remain committed to the position that Carter was actually the best player on the UGA defense in 2021, which is saying something for a unit that produced the top pick and five first-rounders in the NFL Draft.
He’s extremely strong, plays with good leverage, and has both impressive straight-line speed and a quick first step. To top it off he plays with a relentless energy that means he’s never really out of the play. You can certainly double-team him, but that’s an iffy proposition in part because it means another All-SEC caliber defender (Nazir Stackhouse, Robert Beal, or perhaps freshman phenom Mykel Williams) is going to have a shot to come free.
To paraphrase renowned football strategist Ferris Bueller, if you have the chance to add a Jalen Carter to your defense, I highly recommend you pick one up.
LGHL: Georgia has three running backs that essentially have split the carries this season. How does that generally work in-game? Does offensive coordinator Todd Monken ride the hot hand, or is the rotation set in stone — each back getting a certain number of carries/possessions — or is it more situational, with specific backs better suited for different situations? And how do you think that plays out against Ohio State?
Dawg Sports: Georgia’s tailback rotation has settled into a pretty solid pattern. Kenny McIntosh is the putative starter and the most versatile back, a solid runner with good vision who’s also a reliable blocker and a weapon in the passing game. He’ll be spelled by Daijun Edwards, a shifty back who runs well behind his pads and rarely loses yardage. Edwards has become the workhorse when Georgia wants to run out the clock on the ground, in part because he has great ball security habits.
Behind him are a pair of big backs, Kendall Milton and Branson Robinson. Those players have both broken some nice runs this year and will certainly be fixtures moving forward, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see all four backs in this game.
LGHL: Is there any crack in Georgia’s defensive armor that Ryan Day and the Buckeyes can exploit, or will they just have to hope that their defense can slow Bennett and company down enough for the offense to scrape enough points together to pull off the upset?
Dawg Sports: As I noted earlier Georgia has been somewhat prone to giving up big plays. It’s just the nature of the game when you play the type of defense they do. LSU for example was able to throw for a whopping 502 yards on the Bulldog defense, and while a lot of those were in garbage time when Georgia was just keeping the ball in front of them and keeping the clock moving, there were touchdown passes of 53, 33, and 35 yards.
Again, Kirby Smart’s gamble is that you won’t be able to beat the pass rush, beat the defender, and execute yourself enough times to consistently move the ball on his squad. Ohio State’s best bet against this defense is to win that bet by executing well. If CJ Stroud is half a turn off on deep balls or if Buckeye receivers don’t consistently win those one-on-one battles and come down with the ball, Georgia will have a distinct advantage.
On the other hand, if the Georgia offense turns the ball over and gives the Scarlet and Gray shorter fields, the odds of putting points on the board go up dramatically. It sounds a bit trite, but if Georgia wins the turnover margin, I really like the Dawgs’ chances. If it’s even or Ohio State has the advantage in the turnover column, this one is going to be tough for the favorite.
LGHL: Ok, you don’t have to pick a score if you don’t want to (although you are more than welcome to), but what do you think happens in the Peach Bowl on Saturday night?
Dawg Sports: I would expect these two very talented teams to feel each other out a little bit in the early going. Both squads are also coming off long layoffs, which seem to affect teams in unpredictable ways. In the end, I think Georgia’s in good shape if it doesn’t give Ohio State a lead to work with, and Ohio State is in good shape if they get that lead. I see a close game with Georgia pulling away with a punishing drive on the ground in the fourth quarter to win 34-24.