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Wednesday, November 30, 2011
Dawgs can't blink against stingy LSU

By David Ching
DawgNation

ATHENS, Ga. -- Georgia and LSU unquestionably have two of the best defenses in the nation, which puts them in the running for best defense in the nation.

While the teams have comparable numbers, top-ranked LSU (12-0) has faced more prolific offenses than No. 14 Georgia (10-2) and still rarely has been threatened. Even in its worst defensive showing of the season, when it allowed 533 yards against West Virginia, big plays by cornerbacks Tyrann Mathieu and Morris Claiborne helped set up touchdowns that allowed the Tigers to pull away for a 47-21 win.

John Chavis
Georgia defensive line coach Rodney Garner coached at Tennessee with LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis, whose players Garner says are two deep with NFL first-rounders.
It's that big-play ability under the direction of defensive coordinator John Chavis that strikes fear into many an opposing fan's heart.

"He's got 11 first-rounders and 11 second-team first-rounders," Georgia defensive line coach Rodney Garner joked of the talent available to Chavis, with whom he coached at Tennessee in the 1990s.

Not to be outdone, Georgia's defense carried the Bulldogs through the 10-game winning streak they're riding into this weekend's matchup against LSU in the SEC championship game in Atlanta.

The Bulldogs catch flak for the 45 points they surrendered against South Carolina, but 21 of those points -- two defensive touchdowns for the Gamecocks and another on special teams -- came when Georgia's defense was not even on the field. And a fourth South Carolina score came on a drive that started at the Georgia 5-yard line after another turnover.

Since that loss to South Carolina, Georgia is allowing 13.3 points per game -- and three more of the touchdowns that contributed to that scoring average came when opponents returned kicks for touchdowns.

LSU probably presents the most imposing challenge since the Bulldogs lined up against South Carolina, but linebacker Jarvis Jones said his team won't back down against the Tigers' punishing offensive style.

"We're physical just like they are," Jones said. "I believe we've just got to penetrate, get on the ball, make plays. When we get our hand on them, we've just got to bring it to the ground no matter what."

Garner predicted Saturday's game will be "a physical, old-fashioned bar fight. You get hit, you get thrown out on your butt and you've got to go back in," he said with a laugh.

There won't be anything humorous about the way the two attacking defenses approach Saturday's game, however.

Let's take a closer look at how the two defenses stack up segment by segment:

Secondary

Perhaps the marquee defensive comparison in Saturday's game is between the secondaries.

Mathieu has made more big defensive plays than most players in the country, leading the SEC with six forced fumbles and four fumble recoveries. And he might not even rank as the best cornerback on his team, as Claiborne is possibly the secondary's top prospect, and LSU coach Les Miles said he is the leader of the Tigers' position group.

Safeties Eric Reid and Brandon Taylor aren't too bad, either. Reid made the play that saved the Tigers' season when he intercepted a trick-play pass at the LSU goal line in the fourth quarter of the Tigers' 9-6 overtime win at Alabama.

"It's a position of wealth for our team, I think not only in skill and ability, but in leadership," Miles said.

To gauge the Tigers' effectiveness against the pass, try on this stat for size: LSU has allowed just six passing touchdowns this season. Meanwhile, Mathieu (three), Claiborne (two) and fellow cornerback Ron Brooks (one) have combined to score six defensive touchdowns.

"It's really kind of like a little competition back there between us, like who can make plays and stuff," LSU safety Brandon Taylor said. "We all add up our tackles after the game and stuff like that."

Georgia's secondary members could play a similar game of "Can you top that?" The four starters rank among the Bulldogs' top six tacklers and are responsible for 14 of Georgia's 17 interceptions -- a total that ranks second in the SEC and sixth nationally.

Safety Bacarri Rambo leads the team and is No. 1 in the conference with seven picks, giving him the second-most in the country.

Many of those interceptions were the product of a heavy pass rush, more of which Georgia cornerback Brandon Boykin believes the Bulldogs will need against LSU.

"I think we can be successful in the secondary as long as the whole defense does their job as far as the pass rush and the linebackers and the secondary as a whole," Boykin said.

Linebackers

Georgia's linebacking corps already was playing well when inside linebacker Alec Ogletree returned from a six-game absence caused by a broken foot suffered in the season-opening loss to Boise State.

The Bulldogs have been even better in the five games since he returned, with Ogletree forcing a team-high three fumbles and leading the team in tackles in each of the last three games.

Dobbs The biggest problem we're going to have with him is blocking him.

-- LSU O-lineman Will Blackwell, on Georgia OLB Jarvis Jones (above)
Couple that with USC transfer Jones' presence on the outside -- he leads the SEC in tackles for loss (19.5) and sacks (13.5) -- and the Bulldogs have a formidable inside-outside threat.

"The biggest problem we're going to have with him is blocking him," LSU offensive lineman Will Blackwell said of Jones. " ... We've faced some linebackers like that. They're tough to block. So that's definitely going to be the biggest challenge for us."

Because of the heavy publicity LSU's secondary and defensive line receive, the Tigers' linebackers fly under the radar a bit. But Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said the steady bunch perfectly fits the prototype for linebackers in a Chavis defense.

"They're extremely athletic and they run to the ball and they try to take your head off," Bobo said. "The other guys at the front and the back end get a lot of credit -- rightfully so -- but I do think those linebackers are very good players and typical, to me, Chavis-type linebackers. They're a little bit sawed off but are thick and can run and will hit you."

Defensive line

LSU's preference is to hammer the run with a stable of physical backs, while the Georgia defense's preference is to attack running teams. Perhaps the deciding factor Saturday will be whether the Bulldogs can withstand the Tigers' relentless attack.

John Jenkins
Jeff Demps (28) is snowed under by a pack of Georgia Bulldogs on Oct. 29, 2011.
"It's going to be interesting to see," said Georgia coach Mark Richt, whose team ranks sixth nationally in rushing defense, allowing 94.8 yards per game. "That's maybe one of the most compelling matchups of the game is their run offense versus our run defense."

That conversation starts with the matchup between LSU's offensive line and Georgia's improved defensive front. Nose guard John Jenkins has led the line's transformation by solidifying the middle, while ends Abry Jones and DeAngelo Tyson have been solid.

It bears watching whether Tyson can go -- and if he does, how long -- after injuring his ankle against Georgia Tech. Garrison Smith will fill in if Tyson can't play.

On the opposite side, LSU's deep defensive front could make an argument to be considered the best in the country -- and the scary thing is that the Tigers still have growing to do. Of the eight defensive linemen on LSU's two-deep depth chart, five are either freshmen or sophomores, including sophomore co-sack leaders Barkevious Mingo and Sam Montgomery.

The Tigers are fourth in the nation against the run, allowing only 86.1 yards per game, and have yet to allow a 100-yard rusher -- even against Heisman Trophy contender Trent Richardson of Alabama, whose 89 yards against the Tigers has been the best rushing performance by any LSU opponent.

That's bad news for Georgia tailback Isaiah Crowell and the offensive linemen responsible for clearing space for him to maneuver.

"They're relentless," Georgia center Ben Jones said of LSU's line. "They're not just going to stop when you put your hands on them. They're going to go until the whistle blows, and they can constantly rotate guys in that are about the same speed, same size, so they have a lot of depth. They just play hard every snap."

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