Commentary

Murray is UGA's offensive edge

A well-balanced attack and one of the SEC's most efficient QBs are Dawgs' strengths

Updated: December 1, 2011, 9:18 PM ET
By David Ching | DawgNation

ATHENS, Ga. -- Georgia and LSU are similarly productive on offense, but they take vastly different routes in generating that production.

LSU's offense essentially moves in a straight line, with the No. 1 Tigers (12-0) riding a punishing ground game that wears down opponents through the course of four quarters.

"Their goal is not to trick anybody," said Georgia coach Mark Richt, whose team will face the Tigers this weekend in the SEC championship game. "Their goal is to line up and play real sound football in all three phases and basically physically maul you -- wear you down and wear you out, make you quit. They've been able to do it most every game they've played."

Meanwhile, No. 12 Georgia (10-2) typically takes a more roundabout path to the end zone. The Bulldogs emphasize balance on offense and spread the ball among a number of running backs, tight ends and receivers -- making it more difficult to focus on one aspect of their attack.

"It's always good to involve as many people as possible, because the defense can't hone in on any one person that's your standout player," Georgia tight end Aron White said.

Despite their differences, LSU and Georgia are picking up yardage and scoring at similar paces -- with LSU (38.2 points per game) leading the SEC in scoring and Georgia (34.0 ppg) ranking fourth, while Georgia (423.7 yards per game) is third in total offense and LSU (386.8 ypg) is fourth.

Here is a closer look at the position groups that helped the Tigers and Bulldogs reach this point:

Quarterback

If there is an obvious advantage Georgia possesses over LSU, it's in the passing game -- where Aaron Murray is in the midst of a record-setting season for the Bulldogs.

The sophomore quarterback was blistering hot for most of November, passing for five touchdowns in the second quarter of a win against New Mexico State and four touchdowns in the first half of a rout against Auburn. He had a mediocre showing against Kentucky, but rebounded with four touchdown passes in last weekend's victory against Georgia Tech.

In all, Murray passed for 14 touchdowns and two interceptions in November, leading the Bulldogs back to the SEC championship game for the first time since 2005. All of that followed uneven results in some of the Bulldogs' early games.

"A really good quarterback can pull you out of a bad situation. I think Aaron has gotten to the point where I don't think anyone ever questions his toughness mentally or physically," Richt said.

"He is so well-prepared and he creates such good habits in practice that even if he does have an off day or an off quarter or a bad throw here and there, he can't help but get back in pretty good shape."

Often mistake-prone in the past, LSU quarterbacks Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee made significant improvements in taking care of the ball this season.

The last time Georgia got an in-person look at Lee, he was throwing three interceptions -- two that Darryl Gamble returned for touchdowns -- when the Bulldogs blasted the Tigers in Baton Rouge in 2008. He has thrown only three picks in 10 starts this year -- and two of those came against Alabama.

Jefferson replaced Lee in that game, however, and has taken over the starting role since. The dual-threat senior passed for 208 yards and a touchdown and rushed for 53 and a 48-yard score last week against Arkansas.

"He has improved in the execution of the offense from A to Z. He throws the ball so much better," LSU coach Les Miles said of Jefferson. "To be honest with you, we have not been in a game where we have needed to throw the ball as much as we are capable. Looking forward to that at some time, because he can really throw it and we are very capable in the receiving end."

Running Backs

The advantage that LSU has over most every opponent it faces is its deep pool of physical running backs.

[+] EnlargeMichael Ford
John Korduner/Icon SMIWith talented RBs such as Michael Ford, LSU places a lot of weight on time of possession.
That figures to be the case again this weekend, as the Tigers are coming off a game in which they rushed for 286 yards against Arkansas and Kenny Hilliard (19 carries for 102 yards), Michael Ford (11-96) and Jefferson (7-53) all had big days.

They also expect Alfred Blue to return to the lineup after sitting out against Arkansas with an ankle injury.

Having that many weapons at their disposal is the driving force behind the Tigers' ground attack.

"We look at it as a very strong weapon to possess the ball, to move the ball and score," Miles said. "The opportunity to play guys that are ready to go on the field, understand the need of their team, to give us fresh legs and more yards after contact, that is our view. Any team, no matter what offense you run, must be able to run the football to control the game."

Georgia could only dream of that kind of backfield depth and skill.

Freshman Isaiah Crowell most certainly made an impact when he arrived in Athens -- he is fifth in the SEC with 832 rushing yards -- but he has not been as effective in the second half of the season because of a one-game suspension for failing a drug test and a spate of injuries.

Crowell suffered an ankle injury a few plays into the Kentucky game and was not healthy enough to go last week against Georgia Tech, but the Bulldogs say he will play against LSU.

[+] EnlargeSpencer Ware
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesTigers RB Spencer Ware has 687 yards so far this season and eight touchdowns.
Georgia needs him, because few of the alternatives -- diminutive Carlton Thomas and Brandon Harton, Ken Malcome and possibly Richard Samuel, who missed the last four games with a foot injury -- are particularly promising.

Georgia was able to sprinkle infrequent carries by Malcome and cornerback Branden Smith in with a pass-heavy offense to beat Georgia Tech last week, but that approach probably would not work against LSU.

"We really want to be able to run the ball, and I think we need to be able to run the ball against LSU in order to get the victory and put some points on the board," Murray said.

Receivers and Tight Ends

Georgia does not necessarily have a talent edge at receiver -- most observers agree that LSU's Rueben Randle probably will be the most gifted wideout on the field Saturday -- but the Bulldogs have more proven pass-catchers.

Four different Bulldogs receivers have had a 100-yard game this season, six have at least 200 receiving yards and 12 have caught at least one touchdown pass.

[+] EnlargeRueben Randle
Rob Foldy/Icon SMILSU's production at WR drops off after Rueben Randle, who is third in the SEC in receiving yards.
Included in that group is junior Orson Charles, one of three finalists for the John Mackey Award, which goes to the top tight end in college football.

"They're very talented and a very fast group," LSU safety Brandon Taylor said. "A lot of people say Arkansas' receivers are the fastest group in the SEC, but Georgia, they are very fast. I know [Tavarres King], I played against him my sophomore year, and he actually kind of got away from me that year, too. They actually have the most talented tight end in the SEC."

Randle is third in the SEC in receiving yards (889) and touchdown catches (eight), but there is a steep drop between his production and that of his fellow receivers. Odell Beckham Jr. (36 catches for 437 yards) is a solid second option, but they are the only two LSU receivers with at least 200 yards this season.

That is a product of game situations more than talent, as LSU's offensive mentality -- as well as the big leads it claimed early in many of its games -- prevented the Tigers from airing it out often. That prevented gifted players like the versatile Russell Shepard from getting more looks.

Georgia's defensive challenge will be to stay tough against the run early in series in order to force the Tigers to throw the ball more than is customary.

"We've just got to continue to put pressure on them and force them to throw bad balls, play great coverage and hopefully we can come out with some turnovers," Georgia safety Bacarri Rambo said.

Offensive Line

Georgia's offensive line got off to an incredibly rocky start, surrendering six sacks against a veteran defensive front from Boise State -- a total senior center Ben Jones called "unacceptable."

Despite an extreme lack of veteran depth, the Bulldogs' line steadily improved since then. They have allowed 15 sacks during their 10-game winning streak.

"We take pride in protecting Murray, because we never want our best friend to get hit at all," Jones said. "We treat him just like our little brother -- you don't want nobody bullying on your brother. That's how we've taken it all year -- he's our best friend, he's our little brother and we try to protect him with our life."

Like the Bulldogs, LSU dealt with some injuries along its offensive line -- including losing starting guard Josh Dworaczyk before the season even started. Still, their five starters have a combined 99 starts between them.

The Tigers simply plugged in replacements and kept charging, leading the way for their stable of backs to pick up yardage. And while there is not a star in the bunch, the line excels at what most offensive linemen like to do best.

"I don't know if there's just one guy you would say is above the rest. They're just big and strong and physical, and they're just a bunch of guys that love to get after it," Richt said. "They pass protect well, they do all the things you have to do, but I think they enjoy running the football down people's throat more than anything else."

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