Throw in the return of perhaps the nation’s top running back, Todd Gurley, from a four-game suspension and it’s another tough test for Coach Ellis Johnson’s group this weekend at Sanford Stadium.
Missing an unusual amount of tackles the last four games, Auburn’s defense must try to put the clamps on an explosive running attack for the Bulldogs this weekend. Even though he has missed almost half the season, Gurley has 773 yards and eight touchdowns on just 94 carries (8.2 yards per rush), but has been passed by true freshman Nick Chubb for the team lead. Carrying the ball 133 times for 895 yards and seven scores, Chubb is the second of a three-headed ground attack monster for Georgia with fellow freshman Sony Michel rounding out the trio. He has 307 yards on just 39 carries with four touchdowns in only five games.
Todd Gurley is back for a suspension that kept him out of the previous four games.
“It’s going to be tough now,” Johnson said. “They have got two backs that can start for anybody. They are both playing extremely--Chubb’s played extremely well in Gurley’s absence. Going back and looking at their early-season films, Gurley’s like a time bomb, when is he going to get that 95-yard kickoff, when is he going to hit that 40-yard run, when is he going to catch that 35-yard screen pass?“You've got to be exactly right on him every time because he is going either going to break the physical tackle or he is going to outrun the space tackle. He’s a specimen. I’m sure they’ll be glad to get him back. With those two guys rotating and staying fresh, it’ll be really a big-time challenge and that’s of course where it’s all got to start.”
Averaging 256.3 rushing yards per game as a team with 28 touchdowns, the Bulldogs can get downhill in a hurry and that’s a scary thought for an Auburn defense that has gone backwards in the last month since putting the clamps on LSU. Johnson said the focus this week for the Tigers will be like it has been for much of the last few, working on tackling and fundamentals as they prepare for the Bulldogs.
“The tackling this week was not good and we have worked extremely hard,” the defensive coordinator said. “We went back open date and we put a five-minute tackling circuit in our practice routine and we’ve done it every day, Tuesdays and Wednesdays, since that time. It’s got all aspects--open field, angle, head up tackling, stripping the ball--everything. We have got to coach it better, I guess.”
When Georgia is not pounding the football at opponents, senior quarterback Hutson Mason is having some success with play-action throws. Completing 69 percent of his passes this season for 1,515 yards with 15 touchdowns and just three interceptions, Mason has been efficient spreading the ball around to his receivers. Because of the threat of the run it makes the pass even tougher for a defense to contain, senior Gabe Wright said.
“You want to react,” Wright said of playing the defensive line. “We don’t run a read defense here, we like to get off the ball and cause chaos in the backfield. A lot of times offenses trap you and do a good job of running different schemes, but the offensive coordinator, Coach (Mike) Bobo, has been there a long time. I’m sure he’ll have a plan. I think that is what makes Georgia so dangerous, they’re really well balanced, in the sense of run, run, run, pass, run, run, pass.”
Johnson agreed with his veteran defensive tackle. Facing Aaron Murray when he was at South Carolina and seeing what he brought to the Georgia offense, Auburn’s defensive coordinator said this year’s group is just as tough because of the way Mason is playing at the moment.
“They really do a great job of feeding off that running game,” Johnson said. “Hutson’s playing his best ball right now and when you’ve got running backs that can run it, you’ve got to defend that and he’s making great decision and checking them into passes and he looks like a smart kid.
"They haven’t missed a beat with the experience with losing a quarterback that started for them I think for four years. I think I coached against him at Carolina at least one year, maybe two. They lost him and expected it to be tough. He looks like they haven’t missed a beat.”