Thursday, September 26, 2013
Expect heavyweight fight up front in Athens
By Edward Aschoff
When LSU meets Georgia in Athens on Saturday, Ego Ferguson expects a slugfest up front.
LSU's junior defensive tackle knows playing with the big uglies in the SEC means constant fights each week, but this one feels different. Georgia has experience and comfort, while LSU walks in with inexperience and hunger.
The sledgehammer that hits hardest could pave the way to a 2-0 conference start.
"It's like watching a heavyweight fight. It's like [Muhammad] Ali and [George] Foreman go at it," Ferguson said. "It's going to be a battle all day. The way we look at it, we're coming in to prove a point that we can still do it on the defensive line. It's going to be a great challenge, but we're going to be at our best."
It's been nearly 39 years since Ali claimed his second heavyweight title, knocking out Foreman in the eighth round of the historic "Rumble in the Jungle" in Kinshasa, Zaire. It was a fight for the ages and Ferguson, who is second on LSU's team with 21 tackles and has 2.5 tackles for loss and a sack, expects a dogfight to break out up front inside Sanford Stadium.
He has every reason to think this will be quite the bout between these two lines. Georgia returned all five offensive line starters this season and added a top-end piece to the starting lineup with the return of Kolton Houston. After giving up four sacks in the season-opening loss to Clemson, Georgia's line has allowed just two sacks since then and the Bulldogs are second in the SEC in offense, averaging 574 yards per game and 7.8 yards per play.
Tight end Arthur Lynch says a reason for the line's turnaround has been comfort. Communication and nerves hurt this line in a hostile environment at Clemson, but the line's composure has improved greatly in the last two games. It started in the dramatic, 41-30 win over South Carolina, when the line surrendered two sacks and 39 negative yards. It continued with Georgia giving up no sacks and just four negative rushing yards in the blowout of North Texas.
The line would like to clean up the negative rushing yards in big games -- there were 72 combined against Clemson and South Carolina -- but with the mistakes decreasing every week, Lynch has high hopes for Saturday.
"It all starts up front; that's the nature of it," Lynch said. "No matter what you think or how you think football is played, the battle is one up front on the offensive or defensive side of the ball. For us to have some confidence in our offensive line and to know that they get better each week, as it continues to grow knowing the stuff that we have built around it, the sky is the limit for us as an offense."
The Tigers have been impressive on defense, allowing 310 yards per game, and 5.5 of LSU's seven sacks have come from linemen. But they've had some hiccups. They let teams such as TCU and Auburn hang around with 38 combined second-half points. LSU gave up a season-high 213 rushing yards and three touchdowns to Auburn.
It's a bit of a concern, but defensive tackle Anthony Johnson said the defensive line embraces the challenge Saturday, trying to stop Georgia's high-powered passing and rushing attacks.
"Our linebackers felt it was their job to [put pressure on Georgia's offense], but honestly, it starts up front," Johnson said. "We have to set the line of scrimmage and get everything together. If we play like we're supposed to play, it'll be a great day for us."
So how does LSU beat a line that's seemingly getting better every week? Johnson, who has 2.5 tackles for loss this year, says it starts inside. Georgia's line is clicking, but Johnson thinks he knows what the Tigers can exploit Saturday.
"Honestly, we've seen guys beat them on the inside," he said. "We've watched a lot of film on Georgia and they can be beaten. There's nobody that's invincible. We just have to work hard and play our technique."
Winning the battle inside would do wonders for LSU's pass rush, which has to improve if the Tigers are going to stop Georgia. LSU hasn't had the same production as years past, but that past aggression must be present Saturday. However, it won't be easy with Houston and Kenarious Gates manning the outside.
You have to respect Johnson's confidence, especially considering the fact that LSU's defensive line lost four NFL draft picks, but you also have to respect what Georgia's line has done. It's helped engineer one of the nation's best running duos in Todd Gurley (377 yards) and Keith Marshall (117). Quarterback Aaron Murray also is inching closer to more Georgia and SEC records with his 1,040 yards and seven touchdowns.
"Are we the most physically imposing bunch of guys up front? We're not," Georgia coach Mark Richt said, "but we have a bunch of guys collectively that when they get on the same page and they get after it, we've been able to create enough space for our backs and enough time for our quarterback to succeed."
It should be quite the rumble between the hedges.