ATHENS, Ga. -- Garrison Smith is prepared for the inevitable and knows what he has to do against Georgia Tech on Saturday -- something Florida's defenders struggled to accomplish in last Saturday's upset loss against a similar Georgia Southern offense.
“You've just got to use your hands and keep [the offensive linemen] off your legs. That's what you've got to do,” the Georgia defensive lineman said. “You're going to get cut [blocked]. That's going to happen. But you've just got to keep playing.”
Smith's first substantial playing time actually came as the result of a questionable cut block that knocked DeAngelo Tyson out of Georgia's 2011 win over the Yellow Jackets. Smith, then a green sophomore, replaced Tyson in the lineup and recorded seven tackles and 1.5 tackles for a loss, earning SEC Co-Defensive Lineman of the Week honors in the process.
Defensive players don't like dealing with triple-option offenses like Georgia Tech (7-4) and Georgia Southern run, and specifically don't like having to keep their eyes out for pesky offensive linemen who consistently dive at their knees.
“It's just like being out on the streets: you've got to keep your head on a swivel and watch your surroundings,” Smith said. “Protect yourself at all times.”
Otherwise you could suffer Tyson's fate. Or even if you manage to protect yourself, you might fail to fill the proper gap and be the goat when the Yellow Jackets break a long run.
That was the issue for Florida's defense last weekend against Georgia Southern, when the Eagles ran 54 times for 429 yards and upset the Gators 26-20.
Afterward, Gators coach Will Muschamp admitted that the challenges presented in defending that scheme leveled the playing field for the FCS Eagles.
“That's why a lot of these schools run it -- because it takes talent out of the equation,” Muschamp told reporters this week. “A lot of talented guys don't like having somebody at their knees every snap, either.”
Georgia (7-4) has improved in each successive game against Georgia Tech's option since Todd Grantham became defensive coordinator in 2010. That first year, the Yellow Jackets ran 77 times for 411 yards and Georgia barely held on for a 42-34 win. The Bulldogs have won easily in each of the last two seasons, with Tech running 53 times for 243 yards in a 31-17 loss in 2011 and 67 times for 302 yards in last season's 42-10 defeat where their only touchdown drive came against reserves in the fourth quarter.
The problem for Georgia, however, is that only three regulars -- Smith, cornerback Damian Swann and outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins -- have played much against the Yellow Jackets' unique attack. It's entirely different from what Georgia's players and coaches see the rest of the season, so that real-time experience is valuable for all parties.
“I think the more you see anything, the better you feel about it from that standpoint,” Grantham said. “But they're going to mix up what they do. Every year they try to change up and tweak it.
“But the bottom line, it gets down to players making plays, players executing, being where they need to be, playing with good pad level, playing physical and doing all the things you need to do to stop that kind of offense. Because it's really a team-oriented defense to play against, meaning you've got to take care of your assignment and trust someone's going to be somewhere else because if you don't do that, then you create a seam and that's when they get the explosive plays.”
Tech has largely been successful in that regard. As per usual under Coach Paul Johnson, the Yellow Jackets rank among the national leaders in rushing offense (fourth at 316.1 yards per game). They have scored 16 touchdowns -- 11 rushing, five passing -- that covered at least 20 yards and rushed for 200-plus yards in every game but one. In fact, they've rushed for more than 250 in all but their losses to Virginia Tech (129 yards) and BYU (237).
As long as Georgia's first-time starting quarterback Hutson Mason and his cohorts keep Georgia's high-scoring offense on track, the Bulldogs don't need to hold Tech to fewer than 200 rushing yards to win. If the Bulldogs keep grinding against Tech's deliberate attack and consistently arrive where they're supposed to be to make stops, they should survive.
“Everybody's got to do their job,” said Georgia linebacker Ramik Wilson, the SEC's leading tackler with 119 stops. “Me and Amarlo [Herrera], the inside-box guys, we've got to stop the dive. And we've got two outside linebackers that have got to stop the quarterback. And we've just got to make the plays. If we don't make the plays, we get gashed, so we've got to do our job and everything should be all right.”
That's easier said than done, however, as Muschamp can attest.
“You've got to have your offense moving and scoring because as long as [Tech's offense is] on track and on schedule, it's pretty effective,” Grantham said. “It's when there's a separation and they're off track, whether it be down-and-distance or score, then it becomes more difficult. So that's kind of a team thing right there. Fortunately we've been able to do that the last couple years. But it's a challenge to play it.”