ATHENS, Ga. -- After both of their defenses were shredded by opponents’ running games Saturday, Capital One Bowl coaches Mark Richt and Bo Pelini obviously realize their Jan. 1 opponent will enter the game thinking run defense is an area they can exploit.
Richt’s Georgia club allowed 350 rushing yards to Alabama’s punishing offensive line and tailbacks Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon in a 32-28 loss in the SEC championship game. But Pelini’s Nebraska defense endured an even more humiliating experience in the Big Ten championship game against Wisconsin, allowing the Badgers to rush for 539 yards -- the most ever allowed by a Cornhuskers defense -- and win 70-31.
“You give up big rushing yards and that’s a recipe for disaster,” Pelini said Sunday night on a conference call announcing that his No. 16 Cornhuskers (10-3) would meet Richt’s No. 6 Bulldogs (11-2) on New Year’s Day in Orlando. “I know it was for us last night, our number of missed fits and missed tackles. You can’t recover from that. I’m sure Georgia, I’m sure that played a big part even though their game was a lot closer than ours. That’s going to be an area that both teams are going to have to shore up and probably an area that both teams are going to try to exploit.”
Wisconsin most certainly exploited it Saturday night, breaking scoring runs of 56, 57 and 68 yards in a rout that dropped Nebraska from likely Rose Bowl participant to competing in the same bowl in which it lost 30-13 to South Carolina a year ago.
Likewise, Georgia had its sights set on a spot in the BCS championship game, but its inability to slow down Alabama’s running game was a key factor in the loss that dropped the Dawgs out of BCS bowl consideration altogether.
Alabama’s 350 rushing yards marked the third consecutive opponent that rushed for 300-plus against the Bulldogs. Georgia Tech (67 carries for 306 yards) and Georgia Southern (58-302) also went for 300 or more, although that statistic is a bit deceptive as both teams employ run-dominant option offenses.
What is not deceptive is Alabama’s rushing yardage from Saturday when the Crimson Tide simply mashed the Bulldogs up front. And Nebraska -- which boasts the nation’s eighth-best rushing attack at 254.46 yards per game -- will no doubt attempt to do the same.
The Cornhuskers are as good at moving the ball on the ground as they are bad at stopping opposing rushers (they’re 95th nationally in run defense at 194.85 yards allowed per game). Led by running backs Ameer Abdullah (219 carries, 1,087 yards, eight TDs) and Rex Burkhead (74-535, 4 TDs) and quarterback Taylor Martinez (175-973, 10 TDs), the Huskers have no shortage of runners who are capable of doing major damage. Collectively, they led the Big Ten in rushing at 254.46 yards per game.
“It’s going to be a great challenge for us and hopefully our experience in this last ballgame will be even more motivation to tackle better, wrap up better, to play our gap responsibilities better,” Richt said. “So we’ll certainly be coaching hard to get that done.”
The Bulldogs present a different challenge for Nebraska, which ranks first nationally in pass defense at only 148.2 yards allowed per game. Although Georgia is capable of moving the ball on the ground behind freshman tailbacks Todd Gurley (199-1,260, 16 TDs) and Keith Marshall (109-723, 8 TDs), the Bulldogs’ offensive balance is one of their biggest strengths.
That approach helped Georgia accumulate 394 yards of total offense Saturday against Alabama -- statistically the nation’s top overall defense -- and Richt believes it will serve his team well against Nebraska.
“We had a great challenge and we knew there wasn’t much margin for error, but we stayed true to form as far as the things that we like to do, we had some success,” Richt said. “... Just to be able to move the ball well and put points on the board against a defensive team like Alabama should help us with our confidence to be able to do it against Nebraska, as well.”