Florida football: Improving running game is the key to beating Georgia

By Michael Phillips
October 30, 2019
Florida football: Improving running game is the key to beating Georgia

Image Credit: ESPN Images

The World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party is a rivalry game unlike any other, the oldest such regular-season game in college football with stands split right down the middle for fans. And this year’s matchup has a little extra sauce to it as the winner is in the driver’s seat for the SEC East title and a trip to the SEC Championship Game.

For just the second time in series history, both the No. 6 Florida Gators and No. 8 Georgia Bulldogs enter ranked among the top eight teams in the nation. (The last time was 2008 when UF won en route to its second national title in three seasons.)

There has been one constant over the years when the Gators and Dawgs meet: Over the last 13 meetings, the team with the most rushing yards has walked out victorious. It’s safe to say the ground game will be vital on Saturday in Jacksonville, Florida. 

Florida has been gradually improving throughout the season on the ground as the young offensive line has built chemistry and cohesiveness within the scheme. Against a stout Georgia defensive front (85.7 yards rushing allowed per game), the Gators know they will have to continue that trend.

“I think it’s huge for our whole offense,” redshirt junior quarterback Kyle Trask said Monday. “To have a good run game is good for the whole offense’s confidence. Being able to have something you can fall back on, let’s say the passing game is not working. It all comes back to communication and being able to execute and making we’re fitting to the right guys.”

Last week against South Carolina, Florida ran 30 times for 154 yards with one touchdown. Although the rushing attack has struggled at times, the Gators loyalty to it has paid dividends with huge gains late in games. 

In fact, Florida currently leads the nation in rushing touchdowns of 75+ yards with three, which is also good for the most in school history in a single season … with a full month of the season left to play.

The attack should only improve this week as junior athlete Kadarius Toney — listed as a wide receiver but often used in the running game — returns after sitting out multiple weeks with a shoulder injury.

As the running game continues to find its footing, head coach Dan Mullen is eager to see more consistency — particularly early in games. 

“The biggest thing in the run game is the cohesiveness of five linemen and one or two tight ends all being on the same page,” Mullen said. “One guy can’t screw up.

“You see the big run [Lamical] Perine had, he broke a tackle a little bit, but you saw everybody had their perfect fits and it was an explosive play. Those come and go. I always want 4 yards. Everything to me is about efficiency. We had a number of plays again that are 3 yards, and it’s about finishing blocks, bending our legs and being in the exact position, which has to get corrected all the time.”

As the Gators offense continues to progress toward a true balanced attack, the defense is honing in on slowing the Bulldogs potent ground game. 

“They first of all have a very physical offensive line,” defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said of UGA. “And they’re really got a good stable of running backs that can find a scheme.”

Georgia features the 16th best rushing offense in the country (tops in the SEC) at 236.9 yards per game. They can hit you in a few different ways within the ground game as well. The Dawgs can be physical and ram it down your throat, run outside zone and let their star running back D’Andre Swift find the open hole, and even spread it out and get to the outside on sweeps. It is a tough task to slow this attack down. 

“Those guys can pick gaps and seams and take a small hole and accelerate through it and make it a double-digit gain. But it starts with their offensive line being physical,” added Grantham. “Their team, they do a good job of blocking. Their wideouts do a good job of blocking. It’s really a team effort for them to be successful running the ball, and they’ve done a good job with it.”

Florida has been solid against the run this season, allowing just 124.1 yards per game, but it has also been without its star edge protectors in senior defensive ends Jonathan Greenard and Jabari Zuniga. That has allowed offenses to find more success on the ground. 

This week, both players are expected to be back and ready to go to face the Georgia on Saturday with a keen eye on No. 7 in the backfield. 

“Everything revolves around Swift,” said Greenard. “He’s a dynamic player, one of the best in the country behind Perine. We just gotta rally to the ball, tackle, put all 11 hats on him, make him feel us, make him feel uncomfortable. It’s going to be a tough one. He’s not going to give in easy. We’re not going to give in easy. It’s going to be a fun one.”

Neither team is looking to give an inch to the other in this game, and while the passing attack is extremely important, recent history tells us this game will be decided the old fashioned way: by being more physical at the point attack, controlling the running game and wearing down the opponent in the fourth quarter. 

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