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Georgia’s defense has been increasingly dominant. Here’s what Missouri has to do to pierce it:

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Spoiler: a few big pass plays would be a stupendous idea.

J’Mon Moore Briar Napier/Rock M Nation

On September 17, 2016, in the third game of both the Barry Odom era at Missouri and the Kirby Smart era at Georgia, Drew Lock had what was, statistically, his second best game to date against an SEC opponent.

Lock completed 23 of 38 passes for 376 yards and three touchdowns, while J’Mon Moore caught eight of 13 balls for 196 yards. While Lock also threw three picks, Mizzou came within a fourth-down touchdown and a late Moore fumble of a nice upset. Instead, as they are wont to do, the Tigers fell just short. Still, it was an exciting, encouraging performance from the then-sophomore.

Things have changed a little bit since then. Against power conference foes, he has only once topped the 153.9 passer rating he produced in that game (160.8 against Arkansas); he hit 147.0 against a flawed Kentucky secondary last week, and it was easily his best P5 performance of 2017. The optimism has waned, in other words.

Meanwhile, Smart has turned Georgia’s defense damn near into Alabama’s. After ranking 35th in Def. S&P+ (34th in success rate, 12th in explosiveness) last season, UGA is currently up to fourth (sixth, fourth) thus far this season. The Dawgs have yet to allow even 20 points in a game, and in three SEC games, they have allowed a paltry 3.8 yards per play and 17 combined points. Yikes.

Injuries are testing UGA’s depth at the moment, but if anything, the Dawgs’ D appears to be getting better and better. What can Missouri do to potentially ding the Dawgs a bit? Anything?

Defensive line

Defensive Tackle

  • Trenton Thompson (6’4, 295, Jr.) — 13.5 tackles, 3 TFL, 4 run stuffs, 18% success rate
  • Tyler Clark (6’4, 305, So.) — 8.5 tackles, 2 TFLs, 3 run stuffs, 23% success rate

Nose Tackle

  • John Atkins (6’4, 305, Sr.) — 10.0 tackles, 3 run stuffs, 27% success rate
  • Julian Rochester (6’3, 300, So.) — 6.0 tackles, 1.5 TFLs (1 sack), 1 run stuff, 20% success rate

Defensive End

  • Jonathan Ledbetter (6’4, 277, Jr.) — 9.0 tackles, 2 TFLs (1 sack), 2 run stuffs, 17% success rate
  • David Marshall (6’3, 274, So.) — 4.5 tackles, 1 run stuff, 14% success rate
  • Michail Carter (6’3, 295, So.) — 3.5 tackles, 1 TFL, 25% success rate

Georgia has been obnoxiously good against the run so far. The Dawgs are fourth in rushing success rate, seventh in rushing explosiveness, sixth in opportunity rate (percentage of carries gaining at least five yards), and third in power success rate. They don’t really penetrate the line all that much (52nd in stuff rate); they just wait for you to make your move, and swarm. Like Alabama.

As of this morning, Trenton Thompson, probably the best Georgia lineman, is questionable for Saturday with an ankle injury. That certainly can’t help Missouri’s cause, though here’s where it’s nice to recruit like Georgia. Thompson was a five-star recruit, but backup Tyler Clark was a four-star, as were four of the other six linemen listed above (Clark, Rochester, Ledbetter, Carter). This line still has girth and athleticism without Thompson; with Thompson, it is even better.

NCAA Football: Samford at Georgia
John Atkins (97) and Trenton Thompson (78)
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Linebacking corps

SAM linebacker

  • Lorenzo Carter (6’6, 243, Sr.) — 13.5 tackles, 4.5 TFLs (3 sacks), 1 run stuff, 2 FF, 20% success rate
  • D’Andre Walker (6’3, 240, Jr.) — 10.5 tackles, 5 TFLs (1 sack), 4 run stuffs, 18% success rate

JACK linebacker

  • Davin Bellamy (6’5, 245, Sr.) — 12.5 tackles, 4.5 TFLs (2 sacks), 4 run stuffs, 1 FF, 35% success rate
  • Walter Grant (6’4, 245, Fr.) — 5.0 tackles, 2 TFLs, 2 run stuffs, 17% success rate

MIKE linebacker

  • Natrez Patrick (6’3, 234, Jr.) — 11.5 tackles, 0.5 TFL, 2 run stuffs, 41% success rate
  • Reggie Carter (6’1, 230, Sr.) — 6.0 tackles, 50% success rate

WILL linebacker

  • Roquan Smith (6’1, 225, Jr.) — 35.0 tackles, 1.5 TFLs (1 sack), 6 run stuffs, 2 PBU, 25% success rate

The linebackers are the engine of basically every great Bama defense, and Smart, Nick Saban’s former longtime defensive coordinator, has what he needs in Athens, too. Carter, a former five-star, is living up to his billing in his senior campaign, Davin Bellamy and D’Andre Walker are attacking nicely, and Roquan Smith is doing a lovely job of cleaning up messes and supporting the run defense.

Once again, injuries/suspensions could be an issue here. Natrez Patrick’s status is uncertain after a second marijuana arrest, and his listed backup, Reggie Carter, is battling concussion symptoms. So, too, is safety-turned-LB Rashad Roundtree. Somehow, Smart might have to manage with only five depth-chart-ready former blue-chippers. Shame.

The good news, as it were, is that if Missouri runs like it did last week, the Tigers will find some yards against just about anybody. Ish Witter and Damarea Crockett were both awesome, and the experimentation with an extra run blocker (be it a tight end or lineman-turned-fullback Alec Abeln) was successful. The bar is lower here — averaging 7.3 yards per carry (as Witter and Crockett did) against Kentucky would be like averaging 5 per carry against Georgia. But if you offered me 5 yards per carry right now, I’d take it.

NCAA Football: Mississippi State at Georgia
Roquan Smith (3) and Natrez Patrick (6)
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Secondary

Cornerback

  • Malkom Parrish (5’10, 190, Sr.) — 5.0 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 PBU, 50% success rate
  • Tyrique McGhee (5’10, 187, So.) — 10.0 tackles, 1 INT, 5 PBUs, 58% success rate

Safety

  • Dominick Sanders (6’0, 200, Sr.) — 10.5 tackles, 2 TFLs, 1 run stuff, 1 INT, 3 PBUs, 50% success rate
  • Jarvis Wilson (6’2, 199, Jr.) — 2.0 tackles, 1 TFL, 50% success rate

Safety

  • J.R. Reed (6’1, 194, So.) — 25.0 tackles, 3.5 TFLs (1 sack), 4 run stuffs, 1 INT, 3 PBU, 1 FF, 41% success rate
  • Richard LeCounte (5’11, 180, Fr.) — 8.5 tackles, 78% success rate

Cornerback

  • Deandre Baker (5’11, 180, Jr.) — 17.0 tackles, 1 run stuff, 1 INT, 5 PBU, 62% success rate

STAR

  • Aaron Davis (6’1, 195, Sr.) — 17.0 tackles, 4 PBU, 1 FF, 60% success rate
  • Deangelo Gibbs (6’1, 205, Fr.)

Technically, pass defense is the weak spot here, but only because the run defense is so good. UGA ranked 13th in passing success rate, eighth in passing explosiveness, 63rd in standard downs sack rate, and 106th in passing downs sack rate. They don’t dial up just a ton of pressure — they simply cover well and force you to make tough throws.

They say the first step toward beating Alabama is proving you can make tough throws, and tough catches, downfield. Drew Lock is as good a downfield thrower as anybody in the league, so there might be opportunities in that regard, but only if his receivers do their jobs. Moore, Emanuel Hall, and company are good at getting behind their man and reeling in passes, but making catches in traffic? Less of a strength. They have no choice but to make some on Saturday.

NCAA Football: UL Lafayette at Georgia
Deandre Baker
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

We’ll set the bar here: for Missouri to have any chance in the world on Saturday, here are three benchmarks for the offense:

  1. Crocket and Witter average at least about 4.8 yards per carry.
  2. Drew Lock completes at least three passes of 25-plus yards.
  3. Lock throws no more than one interception.

I don’t think that’ll be quite enough, but it’s the bare minimum required.

Special Teams

Kicker

  • Rodrigo Blankenship (6’1, 191, So.) — 26-26 PAT, 5-5 FGs under 40, 1-2 FGs over 40; 39 kickoffs, 29 touchbacks, 34th in FG efficiency, 13th in kickoff success rate

Punter

  • Cameron Nizialek (6’2, 200, Sr.) — 25 punts, 43.2 average, 14 fair catches, 11 inside 20, No. 5 in punt success rate

Kick Returner

  • Mecole Hardman (5’11, 183, So.) — 4 KR, 28.0 average
  • Jayson Stanley (6’2, 207, Jr.)

Punt Returner

  • Terry Godwin (5’11, 185, Jr.) — 2 PR, 1.0 average
  • Mecole Hardman (5’11, 183, So.) — 9 PR, 10.6 average

Oh, by the way: Georgia ranks first in Special Teams S&P+, too. Fun, right? They don’t allow punt returns (at least, not good ones), 74 percent of their kickoffs are touchbacks, place-kicker Rodrigo Blankenship is automatic under 40 yards, Mecole Hardman is averaging nearly 11 yards per punt return, and Mecole Hardman is averaging nearly 30 yards per kick return.

Missouri, meanwhile, is undergoing a position battle at long-snapper.

The good news for Missouri, if it truly exists, is that a special teams advantage doesn’t materialize in every game, even when you’re superior on paper. Punts could all be fair caught or downed. Maybe every kickoff is a touchback either way. Maybe Blankenship only attempts 48-yard field goals. Maybe Missouri actually randomly makes a field goal or two (though to be sure, field goals probably aren’t going to beat UGA). But if a team does derive an advantage here, it’s almost certainly going to be Georgia.