ATHENS, Ga. -- Few teams in college football are more committed to moving the ball on the ground than Auburn, which suits the members of Georgia's defensive front seven just fine.
The Tigers bring the nation's third-best rushing attack (320 yards per game) into Saturday's game vs. Georgia, but defending the run is what the Bulldogs have done best this season, ranking fourth in the conference and 20th nationally in rushing defense (126 ypg).
“We are excited that we have the opportunity to, I guess you could say, flex our muscles, show who we really are,” Georgia defensive end Ray Drew said. “This is going to be one of those tell-tale games. But if we go out and do what we're supposed to, I know that the talent level that we have with myself, Sterling Bailey, Garrison Smith and those guys, the guys up front, I believe we're going to be fine. I'm confident as all get out. I don't see anything that's going to stop us other than ourselves.”
Lineup stability has been one of the key factors in Georgia's mostly solid play against the run, as the defensive line hasn't been hit hard by injuries the way some other position groups have this season. More importantly, inside linebackers Ramik Wilson (10.2 tackles per game) and Amarlo Herrera (8.8) -- two of the SEC's top four tacklers -- have managed to stay healthy enough to play nearly every important down this season, providing veteran presences at positions that otherwise would have been manned by freshmen.
The two junior linebackers denied, however, that they're feeling any ill effects from the heavy workload at this late point in the season.
“I feel good, man,” Herrera said. “I feel good, I love football. This is the only time of year I get to play. I waited all year for this.”
Wilson agreed, adding, “We're always in the cold tub and getting treatment, so we feel pretty good.”
Saturday's game might be the biggest test yet for the starting duo of Herrera-Wilson. Auburn's run-heavy spread offense centers around quarterback Nick Marshall and running back Tre Mason's ability to break long runs and keep the chains moving even when plays don't break big.
Defending it properly requires disciplined play from the linemen and linebackers entrusted to fill gaps and clean up with a tackle -- much like how they must play sound “assignment football” each down to contain Georgia Tech's option running game.
“Looking at both of the offenses, really they try to cause chaos and confusion,” defensive end Sterling Bailey said. “As a defense, we've got to just play our technique and play our fundamentals.”
For the most part, Georgia has done that against the run. The Bulldogs knew LSU would try to establish the ground game when they met earlier this season and held the Tigers to just 77 rushing yards on 36 carries.
It's defending the pass that has created the most glaring issues for Georgia's defense -- for instance, LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger passed for 372 yards even when his running game was faltering -- so Georgia's defenders are perfectly happy to face an Auburn offense that frequently attempts fewer than 10 passes in a game.
“I don't have to run around a lot,” Herrera said. “I get to play football and hit somebody every play. I don't have to cover as much as I do on other weeks because you know they're going to run the ball.”
Surely other Auburn opponents have had similar thoughts prior to facing the Tigers. Yet corralling elusive runners like Marshall and Mason has proven not to be so simple. Aside from a 120-yard rushing effort in their last-minute win against Mississippi State -- they passed for 339 yards in that game -- the Tigers have rushed for at least 200 yards in every game this season.
That includes a 511-yard game on the ground against Western Carolina, 379 yards in an upset of Texas A&M and 444 last Saturday against Tennessee -- with Marshall going for 214 yards and two touchdowns.
To avoid becoming another victim on the Tigers' hit list, the Bulldogs' front seven has to operate quickly -- and provide its most technically sound performance of the season.
“You've just got to know your responsibilities and everybody has to be gap-responsible because if one person's out of position, it can be a big play,” safety Josh Harvey-Clemons said.