ATHENS, Ga. - In a competition that likely will spill over into their respective future NFL careers, Georgia defensive end Charles Grant's ability to get around Mississippi left tackle Terrence Metcalf may be the matchup that decides Saturday's game.
"It will be real interesting to see how that goes,'' Georgia coach Mark Richt said Wednesday. "I'm sure a lot of people will be interested to see that.''
The challenge from Metcalf comes just as Grant finally has found the spark that made him such an effective pass-rusher two years ago as a freshman. Unable to bring down a quarterback until last Saturday, Grant exploded with four sacks - one shy of the school record set by Freddie Gilbert in 1983 -in the 24-17 loss to Auburn.
Grant also recorded a season-high 13 tackles against Auburn and on Wednesday was named the defensive captain for the Ole Miss game. The breakthrough game marked a return to Grant's form of 1999, when he led Georgia with seven sacks before suffering a torn anterior cruciate ligament at the end of the year.
Though he ranked second on the team with eight tackles for lost yardage last year, Grant's sophomore season was mostly quiet, with only two sacks. Again this year he had settled for pressuring quarterbacks until the Auburn game.
"I just went out and made up my mind I was going to get to (Auburn quarterback) Daniel Cobb and nobody was going to stop me,'' Grant said this week. "I tested my manhood for the game and for the rest of the season.''
It will be even more important for Grant and the Georgia pass rush to affect Ole Miss quarterback Eli Manning's efforts in Saturday's 12:30 p.m. ET game.
Manning is the Rebels' star, but Metcalf is his bodyguard.
The 6-foot-4, 315-pound Metcalf protects Manning's blindside and is a candidate for the Outland Trophy given to the nation's top lineman. Metcalf has not allowed a sack this season and has given up only one since 1999. Grant ranks Metcalf as the second-toughest offensive lineman he has faced, following Florida's Kenyatta Walker, a first-round draft pick by Tampa Bay last April.
Metcalf is projected by The Sporting News as the nation's top offensive guard in next year's draft and is listed by ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. as the fourth-best senior offensive lineman in the nation.
"He's a great lineman,'' said Grant of Metcalf. "He has great hands and great feet. I've got to study his moves.''
Manning has been sacked only eight times this season. Though he is similar to Georgia quarterback David Greene in that he is not a great runner, Manning makes smart decisions to avoid sacks.
When Manning has time to pass, he is devastating. The All-America candidate has passed for 23 touchdowns with only two interceptions - the best ratio in the nation - and is the major reason Ole Miss (6-2 overall, 3-2 in the Southeastern Conference) has scored 30 or more points in six of its eight games.
Manning also is the major reason the unranked Rebels are favored by two points over No. 23 Georgia (5-3, 4-3).
"I think he's played extremely well,'' said Ole Miss coach David Cutcliffe. "He's been tough. He's been competitive. He's been a good decision-maker. His physical skills have been outstanding. ... The thing I've been most pleased about is, as a young quarterback, his consistency.''
In the Rebels' seven-overtime loss to Arkansas two weeks ago, Manning passed for 312 yards and six touchdowns.
"I've watched Eli and he's a great player,'' Grant said. "We have to get to him and hit him and keep applying pressure. ... With more pressure and more sacks, hopefully we can come out with a victory.''
As a team, Georgia had only seven sacks in its first seven games before doubling that total with seven against Auburn. Richt says quarterback pressures are underrated and said it is important the defense at least causes Manning to rush some passes.
"Grant might play a better game this week and not get a sack because Manning knows how to get rid of it,'' Richt said.
Richt said he did not talk to Grant and the defense about having no sacks all through the week leading up to the Auburn game until about an hour before kickoff. Then Richt said he asked players were tired of being asked about the sacks, and the coach added that he personally was tired of the questions.
"That moment was the time to do something about it,'' Richt said. "If they got a little mad about it, I was hoping they would get a little mad.''
Said Grant of his four sacks: "The good Lord put something in me. I can't take the credit for it. I hope He keeps it in me for the rest of the season.''
NOTES: Backup defensive end Nic Clemons will miss the game with a strained hip. Clemons' status for the rest of the season is uncertain. Clemons has three tackles in five games. ... Defensive lineman Josh Mallard should be fully cleared to play against Ole Miss, but Richt did not say if Mallard will return to the starting lineup. Georgia may leave freshman David Pollack as the starting tackle and Johnathan Sullivan at defensive end for the second straight week. ... Captains this week are center Curt McGill and fullback Verron Haynes on offense, Grant on defense and Jermaine Phillips on special teams.
Charles Odum can be reached at CEOdum@aol.com.