Dawgs stack up, stop the run
Grantham's defense answers call, holds down Mississippi State's Relf, Ballard
ATHENS, Ga. -- If Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen thought he could repeat his recipe for victory from last year's win against Georgia, he was sadly mistaken.
Quarterback Chris Relf and running back Vick Ballard -- the duo that rushed for 274 yards in Mississippi State's win last year in Starkville -- never found room to run Saturday at Sanford Stadium, and the result was an easy Georgia 24-10 victory.
"We got what we needed to get done," Georgia coach Mark Richt said. "I wasn't surprised that we did well stopping the run with the running backs, but I didn't know how well we'd stop the run with the quarterback."
Facing heavy pressure behind a patchwork offensive line, Relf finished with 15 carries for 31 yards and was sacked four times. Ballard rushed eight times for 23 yards -- season lows in both categories for the Mississippi State star, who came in averaging 102 rushing yards per game and 7 yards per carry.
The running game is the foundation of Mississippi State's offense, but the visiting Bulldogs never got into an offensive rhythm when Georgia's defense consistently stifled the run and held State to 56 rushing yards on 34 attempts.
As a result, Relf was forced out of his comfort zone. He mostly sat in the pocket to pass, completing 19-of-31 for 157 yards, and his total of two interceptions could have been more. Georgia's Sanders Commings had two near-interceptions graze off his fingertips, and Brandon Boykin had a pass go through his hands.
"We should have had seven picks, but we had some," said Commings, who made a key interception at the Georgia 3-yard line in the second quarter and also recovered a fumble that set up a Blair Walsh field goal in the third quarter.
Even without the interceptions, Georgia made Relf uncomfortable and forced him into numerous bad throws.
At points in the second half, Mullen opted to give redshirt freshman quarterback Dylan Favre -- the nephew of NFL great Brett Favre -- a shot under center, because of the offense's stagnant play. Favre didn't fare any better, going 0-for-2 passing and taking a 10-yard sack.
"I felt [Relf] started getting nervous, and then I felt like we started getting to him a little bit," said outside linebacker Cornelius Washington, who had two of Georgia's five sacks. "They're subbing quarterbacks in and out, and I could see the tackles leaning, trying to get back. Anytime you do that, you know you've got them nervous and bending a little bit, so you just try to take advantage of it."
The defensive pressure was a key element in Georgia accomplishing defensive coordinator Todd Grantham's goal.
"We try to force people to beat you left-handed," Grantham said. "I think that's the key to playing good defense no matter what level you're on: Who can beat you and how can they beat you, and you take those things away."
The dominant defensive effort continued an outstanding stretch by Georgia's defense, which has not surrendered a second-half point in the last three games. The Bulldogs' dominance wasn't particularly surprising in the previous two efforts against offense-deprived Coastal Carolina and Ole Miss teams, but Mississippi State came in averaging 427 yards of total offense per game.
The Bulldogs knew this was a prime opportunity to prove that their defensive improvements were legitimate.
"It was a challenge for us, because people had really questioned our defense; are we really getting better or are they really doing this or that," said outside linebacker Jarvis Jones, who finished with two sacks and five tackles. "Today you can see. We're definitely getting better week after week."
The scary thing for future opponents is that Georgia's defense remains incomplete, without regular contributions from the two players who opened the season as starting inside linebackers. Christian Robinson returned to spot duty Saturday after missing two games with a foot injury, and Alec Ogletree remains out after breaking his foot in the opener against Boise State.
Jones predicted even better things from Georgia's defense when it has all of its key pieces in place again.
"It was definitely a game for us to show we're improving week after week," Jones said. "There's just so much room for improvement out there. I can't wait for everybody to see what we look like once we get everybody back."
David Ching covers University of Georgia sports for DawgNation. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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