JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Florida’s defense on Tuesday said its goal for its rivalry game against the third-ranked and undefeated Georgia Bulldogs on Saturday was to prioritize stopping the run, limiting the Bulldogs’ one-two punch of Nick Chubb and Sony Michel.
Do that, they said, and the Gators could have a chance if they force freshman quarterback Jake Fromm to beat them through the air.
Former LSU defensive lineman and current SEC Network analyst Marcus Spears echoed their sentiments Friday.
“That’s the key to the game,” Spears said. “The front seven for Florida is probably the most important unit in this entire game because if you don’t stop Georgia from running, they’re going to beat you. It doesn’t matter what you do.”
Teams haven’t figured out how to stop Georgia’s smashmouth run game.
The Bulldogs rank 10th nationally and second in the SEC in rushing offense, averaging 282.9 yards and 3 touchdowns per game on the ground. Over the last three games — wins over Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Missouri — Georgia has averaged 362.3 rushing yards per game and had 4 rushing touchdowns in each.
Seniors Chubb and Michel are the only running backs from the same school ranked in the top 10 in the SEC in rushing yards per game. Chubb ranks third (98.29 yards/game), while Michel is eighth (82 yards/game).
“When you think about how you stop this team, you stop the run and you put it in Jake Fromm’s hands,” Spears said. “And with this [Florida] secondary, you’d probably like your chances.”
Florida, meanwhile, has found success as of late against top SEC rushers. The Gators held each of the last three big-name backs it has faced — Vanderbilt’s Ralph Webb, LSU’s Derrius Guice and Texas A&M’s Trayveon Williams — to less than 50 rushing yards. Overall, the Gators have held three of their last four opponents to no more than 120 rushing yards. The exception in that group was LSU, which racked up 216 yards on the ground thanks to a bevy of first half jet sweeps.
This has helped the Gators improve to 48th nationally in rush defense after being ranked as low as 106th in the country earlier in the season.
“The D-line is pivotal, but that’s every game,” Spears said. “If you look at this conference, if you stop the run, that’s the team that usually wins.”
And Florida’s defensive line has been one of the more consistent and deep position groups on the Gators defense this season.
Five Florida defensive linemen have at least 4 tackles for loss this year, with junior CeCe Jefferson’s 7 leading the way. Overall, the Gators rank fourth in the SEC with an average of 6.83 tackles for loss per game.
The Gators have liberally rotated four defensive ends — Jefferson, redshirt senior Jordan Sherit, redshirt sophomore Jabari Zuniga and sophomore Jachai Polite — season to maximize their efforts in the trenches.
Sherit, however, suffered a season-ending hip injury against Texas A&M, and Spears said his absence will be a “big loss” both because of his performance on the field (23 tackles, 5 tackles for loss, team-best 9 quarterback hurries) and his veteran presence.
“It puts a strain,” Spears said, “because usually the guy that’s behind him hasn’t played a lot, especially in big moments like this, and when you don’t have the experience of playing SEC football — like the physical dominance that it takes in these type of games — it can get a little grassy.”
Taven Bryan has impressed as well, ranking as Pro Football Focus’ fourth-best defensive tackle because of “his ability to consistently defeat blocks and win his gap.”
For Florida to come out with the upset on Saturday, the defensive line will need to be at the top of its game.
“[Defensive line coach Chris] Rumph is a good coach,” Spears said. “He’ll have these guys ready to go.”