Commentary

UGA's stats stand up to LSU's

Run defense, clock management, avoiding mistakes are crucial to Dawgs' success

Updated: November 28, 2011, 12:34 PM ET
By David Ching | DawgNation

ATHENS, Ga. -- Mark Twain famously pointed out the folly in basing an argument on statistics when he wrote, "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics."

Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham recently channeled that line of thinking when asked what statistics most effectively explain the Bulldogs' defensive transformation this season.

"Points allowed," Grantham replied with a slight smirk.

Of course, no statistic is more important than the score, and the Bulldogs have allowed fewer points than their opponent in 10 of 12 games this season. But Grantham went on to note that Georgia's improvement on first and third downs and its ability to generate turnovers have all contributed to the Bulldogs' recovery.

As Twain indicated, it's possible to manipulate statistics to suit almost any argument. Thankfully, when the subject of the argument is this weekend's Georgia-LSU matchup in the SEC championship game, we need only to rely on statistics until the teams meet Saturday to settle the debate.

Until then, here are five statistical areas that are likely to figure into the outcome:

Rushing offense

Aside from points and possibly turnovers, no statistic will play a greater role in deciding Saturday's game than rushing yardage.

Both teams bring to Atlanta run defenses that rank among the nation's best -- LSU is fourth nationally, allowing 86.1 yards per game, while Georgia is sixth at 94.8 -- and both employ aggressive, smashmouth defensive tactics and personnel.

LSU would love nothing better than to pound the run all afternoon, and it has been largely successful in doing so, but the Tigers have faced few teams as prepared to stand up to their ground game as Georgia.

The key to LSU's running success is its stable of workhorse backs. Michael Ford leads the team with 721 rushing yards, but Spencer Ware has 687, Alfred Blue 445 and Kenny Hilliard 248. The group has combined to score 27 rushing touchdowns. And quarterback Jordan Jefferson is an adept runner himself -- sprinkling in option keepers with the Tigers' regular downhill runs -- with 253 rushing yards and three more scores.

Georgia's offense is not as run-oriented, but the Bulldogs need a healthy running threat to set up play-action passes.

[+] EnlargeMurray
Dale Zanine/US PresswireAaron Murray's clock management puts Georgia among the best in the SEC in first downs.
Offensive coordinator Mike Bobo scrapped a game plan that called for a balanced attack early in last weekend's win against Georgia Tech, allowing quarterback Aaron Murray to attempt 29 passes in the Bulldogs' 31-17 victory.

He probably won't be able to do that against LSU, but he'll need a healthy Isaiah Crowell to have an effective running game.

The Georgia freshman is fifth in the SEC in rushing with 832 yards, but he injured his ankle in the first quarter against Kentucky and missed the Georgia Tech game. Georgia coach Mark Richt said he believes Crowell will be available and that fellow tailback Richard Samuel could also return from injury -- and the Bulldogs desperately need them, as Georgia's running backs totaled only 86 yards against Georgia Tech.

Time of possession

Thanks to effective defensive play and offenses that keep the chains moving, Georgia and LSU are the SEC's top teams in time of possession.

Georgia leads the league by possessing the ball for an average of 33 minutes, 34 seconds per game, while LSU is just behind the Bulldogs with an average of 32:44.

While both teams have quick-strike potential, their preference is to control the ball and the clock, which is why they also rank among the league leaders in first downs.

If Georgia manages to lead LSU in time of possession Saturday -- or at least keeps it close -- the Bulldogs will probably run the ball effectively.

Punt defense

While Georgia and LSU are closely matched on most statistical categories, this is one where they differ significantly. Drew Butler of Georgia and Brad Wing of LSU average almost the exact same distance on their punts -- 43 yards -- but the way their teams defend against returns is not so similar.

LSU has allowed opponents to return punts for a total of 6 yards this season. That's 0.46 yards per return, which, believe it or not, ranks third in the nation, not first.

Tyrann Mathieu
Crystal LoGiudice/US PresswireExpect LSU's Tyrann 'Honey Badger' Mathieu, who averages 13.7 yards per punt return, to be a factor in the special teams game.
Georgia has improved in this area recently, but it was a sore spot for much of the season. The Bulldogs rank 112th nationally, allowing 14.3 yards per return -- including an 84-yard return for a touchdown against Ole Miss.

The Bulldogs can't afford any special teams mishaps against LSU, but the Tigers have the perfect player to exploit any weaknesses in Tyrann "Honey Badger" Mathieu, who is averaging 13.7 yards per punt return and swung last weekend's win against Arkansas with a 92-yard return for a touchdown.

Sacks and pressures

If Mathieu isn't this season's breakout defensive player in the SEC, then it's Georgia's Jarvis Jones.

The outside linebacker has come up big in some of Georgia's biggest games, leading the SEC in both sacks (13.5) and tackles for loss (19.5). It will be up to Jones and company to defend LSU's run well enough to force the Tigers into passing situations -- and then force Jefferson into mistakes.

The Bulldogs' offensive line allowed Boise State to sack the quarterback six times, but since then it has held up well for the most part. However, Georgia hasn't faced a team all season capable of pressuring Murray the way LSU will.

The Tigers' overwhelming pass rush starts with defensive ends Barkevious Mingo and Sam Montgomery -- tied for fourth in the SEC with eight sacks apiece -- but LSU has no shortage of defensive linemen capable of wreaking major havoc.

Georgia's depth-deprived offensive line against LSU's fearsome front will be the top matchup to watch in Saturday's showdown. The Bulldogs must give Murray enough time to find open receivers if they are to have any chance of handing LSU its first loss of the season.

Takeaways

Mathieu is again the player to watch in this category, as the Honey Badger leads the SEC in both forced fumbles (six) and fumble recoveries (four), as well as has two interceptions.

The Tigers trail only South Carolina and Georgia with 27 takeaways this season and they have also been remarkably stingy when it comes to committing turnovers, giving the ball away only eight times. That combination helps LSU lead the nation in turnover margin.

Georgia is no slouch in that regard, either, as its 29 takeaways against 19 turnovers help the Bulldogs rank 15th nationally and second in the SEC in turnover margin.

DawgNation will have more on this key statistic Tuesday.

David Ching covers University of Georgia sports for DawgNation. He can be reached at davidchingespn@gmail.com.