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Georgia-Kentucky Preview: When The Bulldogs Have The Ball

It seemed almost unthinkable when the Dawgs were flying home from Colorado nursing a four-game losing streak, but they've now notched two blowouts in a row over SEC opponents and are only a game out of first place in an SEC East that is looking more and more like a padded room with each passing week. UGA averaged 42 points over those two wins, and an offense that struggled mightily over the first month of the season finally looks like it's putting all the pieces together.

Against the pass: 29th nationally with 185.9 yards allowed per game, though they're coming off a game in which they let South Carolina's Stephen Garcia set a new career best with 382 yards on 20-of-32 passing (two TDs, two picks).
Against the run: 87th in the nation with 176.0 yards allowed per game. They held Carolina's Marcus Lattimore to only 79 net yards but have allowed a hundred-yard rusher in four of seven contests this season.

Kentucky's defense is an inexperienced unit that has held up well against the pass, but partly because their opponents have felt free to run it all over them. If that sounds familiar, it's probably because Vanderbilt -- the team Georgia just unloaded on for 41 offensive points and 547 total yards -- followed almost exactly the same pattern. True, the Wildcats did hold Marcus Lattimore under 80 yards in last week's upset win over South Carolina, but Lattimore left the game with an ankle injury after only two carries in the second half; he'd been averaging 5.3 yards per rush up to that point.

Had he been able to play the entire game, it's highly likely he would've been the fifth hundred-yard rusher allowed by the Wildcats this year. It's one thing to give up that many yards to, say, an unstoppable force of nature such as Auburn's Cam Newton (28 rushes for 198 yards and four touchdowns two weeks ago in Lexington), but the UK front seven also got gashed by Louisville's Bilal Powell (16 rushes, 153 yards) and Western Kentucky's Bobby Rainey (22 for 184, a good portion of that coming while Kentucky still had their defensive starters in).

The Wildcats actually had the SEC's worst run defense before last week; they've since moved up to 11th, thanks mainly to Vanderbilt dropping to dead last after getting gashed by Georgia. But that can't come as much comfort to Wildcat fans, particularly since it looks like the Dawgs may finally be ironing out the kinks in their O-line and running game. With leading rusher Caleb King watching from the sidelines, Washaun Ealey shook off a month's worth of struggles by ripping Vandy for 123 yards and a score; perhaps more importantly, a somewhat retooled offensive line finally opened up some big holes, including one big enough to let Ealey set a new team high with a 58-yard rush in the first quarter. Even little Carlton Thomas managed to break outside for some nice runs, two of which went for touchdowns. With fullbacks Shaun Chapas and Fred Munzenmaier back up to full strength, this running game is finally rounding into the kind of unit Georgia fans thought it'd be all along.

With respect to QB Aaron Murray, of course, Bulldog Nation is virtually worry-free and has been for some time. Despite facing an athletic and well-coached secondary last week, Murray had another stellar day (15-of-24, 287 yards, two TDs, no picks) that would've been even better if not for some dropped passes in the early going. Murray now ranks 18th in the nation (and #1 among freshmen) in passing efficiency -- he's thrown 12 touchdowns to only three interceptions, a stat that may be the most confidence-inspiring of all. Last year it was a turnover-fueled second-half meltdown that caused a 20-7 halftime lead to collapse into a 34-27 loss; two of those turnovers were picks by QB Joe Cox, and one of them led directly to the touchdown that put the Wildcats ahead for good. It isn't overconfidence on the part of Georgia fans to expect that Murray will avoid those kinds of errors, particularly against a secondary that will have to cover A.J. Green and emerging threats Kris Durham and Tavarres King even while accounting for the departure of the star of last year's defense, cornerback Trevard Lindley.

Kentucky is clearly vulnerable up front, but behind that, they're solid. Linebacker Danny Trevathan ranks #1 in the conference in tackles, averaging 10 per game, and free safety Winston Guy checks in at 19th with 6.57. So while Washaun Ealey and Carlton Thomas may be able to get behind the first line of Kentucky defenders, the guys behind them have proven to be pretty tenacious, so they shouldn't automatically expect to break off the kinds of long runs they finally found against Vanderbilt last week. Turnovers, too, are a problem that Ealey hasn't necessarily wrapped up after just one fumble-free Saturday against the Commodores.

Nor should Georgia automatically expect to win the field-position battle. The absence of Branden Smith seems to have caused the return game to stagnate somewhat -- the Dawgs' longest return against Vanderbilt was only 12 yards, and while they obviously didn't get a lot of opportunities against Vandy, they didn't get much done the previous week against Tennessee, either. (Of course, the Wildcats rank last in the SEC in punt-return defense and next-to-last in KO defense, so maybe there'll be an opening for Brandon Boykin or Logan Gray to break one after all.)

Georgia RB Washaun Ealey vs. Kentucky WLB Danny Trevathan. OK, Washaun, you achieved some impressive redemption against the Commodores last week -- now do it again. Kentucky's given up some big chunks of rushing yardage this season, but Trevathan is a seasoned player with a knack for flying to the ball, and he knows he's going to have to corral Ealey and the Bulldog backfield if the UK defense is to mount any kind of disruption. A late Ealey fumble near the Kentucky goal line last year -- recovered by, you guessed it, Danny Trevathan -- robbed Georgia of perhaps its last best chance to turn the tide in that game; here's hoping he's fired up and ready to distribute some payback.

(Now comes the hard part -- how Georgia is going to stop the Kentucky offense, coming tomorrow.)

Photographs by coka_koehler used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.