After a rough start to the season with losses to two ranked teams in Boise State and South Carolina, the Mark Richt-led Georgia Bulldogs (3-2, 2-1 SEC) have answered back strong with three straight wins and head into Knoxville on Saturday tied for first in the SEC East, alongside Florida and South Carolina.
While sophomore quarterback Aaron Murray has not missed a beat from last year and has been the centerpiece of the Bulldogs offense up to this point in the season, throwing for 1,100 yards and 13 touchdowns, it has been the freshman running back Isaiah Crowell who has been turning heads with his explosive runs.
Through five games, Crowell has been a headache for opposing defenses, rushing for 515 yards on 99 attempts and has found the end zone on two occasions. The Tennessee Vols’ (3-1, 0-1) run defense will be in for a tough test, especially considering that it has allowed two opposing rushers to have 100-yard games this season and Crowell has three of those performances already under his belt.
Crowell’s best performance this season came in a 27-13 defeat of Ole Miss. On the day, he carried the ball 30 times for 147 yards.
“The thing I’m noticing about him is people are having a hard time getting clean contact on him,” Richt said. “They’re getting edges of him. He is very elusive in space and it’s kind of subtle. The guy looks like he’s right there to hit him pretty solidly, but he does just enough to take his hips away. He gets hit but he keeps on going.”
Richt compared the freshman tailback to a former Bulldog tailback.
“The backs that can make people miss in a tight space are really very good,” he said. “That’s one of the things I think Knowshon (Moreno) may have been one of the best I’ve ever seen as far as being a guy that could make people miss in the box or behind the line of scrimmage. He was just exceptional at that, and Isaiah has some of that.”
Some of the other threats on offense that the Vols will have to be aware of are freshman wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell and junior tight end Orson Charles. The two have combined for 38 catches for 568 yards and seven touchdowns. Charles leads all tight ends in the SEC with four scores.
While the Bulldogs have been solid on offense this season, averaging 34.6 points per game, they have struggled on defense at times but have settled down a little during their three-game win streak. During the streak, the Dawgs have held their opponents to a combined 7.7 points per game and have forced eight turnovers.
In their most recent win against Mississippi State, Georgia’s defense limited its opposition to 213 total yards and held State to 4-of-15 on third downs.
“We’ve worked on third down stops, and so far it’s been one of our strengths,” Richt said. “As (defensive coordinator Todd) Grantham likes to say, ‘getting them off the field.’ Execution is the key and the big difference this year for us.”
However, the Bulldogs might suffer a bit in holding the Vols on third downs this Saturday, as they will be without starting outside linebacker Cornelius Washington, who was arrested last weekend. Washington leads the team in sacks this season with three and a half.
All in all, things are shaping up to be a very interesting game in Knoxville this Saturday, as the game has great importance to both teams.
“Playing there at their place, having to deal with all the crowd noise, having to deal with the things you have to deal with on the road, it’s going to make for a heck of a ball game,” Richt added. “I know that two years ago we got beat pretty bad. Last year, we beat them pretty good here, so you can’t go by what happened last year. You have to play this year’s game and that’s what we are ready to do.”
A win would give Richt his 100th career win as coach in Athens. The game will be televised by ESPN2 with the kickoff set for 7 p.m. EST.