5 things to watch for as Georgia hosts South Carolina

5 things to watch for as Georgia hosts South Carolina

Athens — Alarms will be going off early Saturday and tailgating festivities will be condensed as the No. 3-ranked Georgia Bulldogs play host to South Carolina in an SEC Eastern Division game that will kick off at noon (ESPN, Georgia Bulldog Radio Network).

It’s the second time this season the Bulldogs (5-0, 2-0 SEC) have had to play so early. They also kicked off at noon in Week 3 in what was a 55-0 win against Arkansas State.

South Carolina (2-3, 1-2) is expected to me a much greater challenge. The Gamecocks are coming off a bye – one of five opponents that will have that luxury against Georgia this season – and appear to have found their footing in a 24-7 win over Kentucky in the last outing.

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The Bulldogs are seeking their third consecutive 6-0 start under coach Kirby Smart and a fifth win in a row over South Carolina, which had won four of the previous five.

Some things to watch as Georgia attempts to do that:

No running allowed

The Bulldogs are the only FBS team in the nation that has not allowed a rushing touchdown. It will be significant if they can continue that streak against South Carolina.

The Gamecocks represent the best rushing team Georgia has faced and possibly will meet all year. South Carolina is averaging 203.8 yards per game on the ground, which is fifth in the league. The production is coming from a trio of senior backs, all of whom have had success against SEC opponents.

Starter Rico Dowdle rushed for 102 yards against both Alabama and Kentucky, while Clemson transfer Tavean Feaster also went for 107 against the Wildcats. Meanwhile, 5-foot-10, 215-pound fifth-year senior Mon Denson has been able to give the Gamecocks the tough yards and is averaging 8.4 yards a carry.

Georgia will counter that with what is the SEC’s leading rush defense. The Bulldogs are giving up just 59.6 yards per game. Then again, this will be the first time they’ve run up against run-oriented team. Tennessee and Vanderbilt are 12th and 14th, respectively, among SEC teams in rushing.

Health and well being

Georgia’s stuff-the-run objective to would be enhanced considerably if Jordan Davis is healthy and able to play. The 6-foot-6, 330-pound sophomore injured an ankle on Tennessee’s first offensive play from scrimmage last Saturday – a 16-yard run – and was unable to return to the game.

All arrows were pointing up this past week for Davis to be able to return. While he was getting rehabilitation in the training room most of the time, Smart said Davis was ahead of schedule in comparison to offensive linemen Isaiah Wilson and Solomon Kindley, who had more significant ankle injuries. Wilson missed two games and Kindley one (so far) as traveled to Knoxville but did not play against the Volunteers.

Davis’ effectiveness at tying up multiple blocks on the interior line has been an important factor in the Bulldogs limiting opponents to just 10.8 points a game this season. That’s second in the SEC and seventh nationally.

But Georgia showed its renowned depth of talent extends to the defensive line in the 43-14 win over Tennessee. After Davis went out, seniors Michael Barnett and Julian Rochester came in and, after a brief adjustment period, were equally dominant. The Vols scored two touchdowns in the first 15:03 of the game, then Georgia shut them out the rest of the way. In all, the Bulldogs have posted 23 scoreless quarters this season.

“It starts up front with us,” Barnett said. “We just have to hold our points, read blocks and make sure nothing comes in our gaps.”

Home sweet home

Georgia returns home to Sanford Stadium, which has been a very good place to play for a very long time. Saturday represents the 90th anniversary of the dedication game against Yale, a 15-0 win that took place on Oct. 12, 1929.

The Bulldogs didn’t lose in their new facility that year and they haven’t lost in it often since. Georgia has had 26 undefeated seasons on its home field since that first one and is attempting to make it three in a row under Smart. The Bulldogs were 6-0 in 2017 and 7-0 last year.

They’re 3-0 so far this year, with games against South Carolina, Kentucky, Missouri and Texas A&M remaining. For what it’s worth, Georgia is 23-8 against the Gamecocks at Sanford Stadium and 28-8 in Athens. South Carolina last won here under Steve Spurrier in 2011, 45-42.

Little known fact about that ’29 season: Georgia played two home games before the dedication game, losing to Oglethorpe University 13-7 in the opener. But that was on the old field next door where the Tate Student Center and adjoining parking lot is now located.

Where’s the explosiveness?

The chief complaint after last week’s 29-point SEC road win was the Bulldogs aren’t explosive enough on offense. While we tend to think long bombs and 75-yard runs whenever offensive explosion is mentioned, technically explosive plays are defined as those of 15 yards or longer.

Actually, the Bulldogs have had a bunch of those. They’ve logged 24 plays of 25 yards or more, compared to 10 by opponents. Georgia’s two longest plays from scrimmage this season were logged by freshmen on Dominick Blaylock’s 60-yard touchdown catch and Kenny McIntosh’s 62-yard run, both coming against Arkansas State.

The Bulldogs figure it’s just a matter of time before it gets more explosion., but that's not Smart's cornerstone  philosophy. Old school though it may seem, it’s still quite effective to control the football and wear down an opponent.

Here’s some numbers to consider: Georgia has had 14 touchdown drives of 71 or more yards; it averages 6.9 plays per scoring drive; the average scoring drive last about three minutes. With the Bulldogs averaging 42.8 points per game, that means they’re spending a lot of time holding onto the football and scoring with it. That's generally a good thing.

‘Forever to 3’

Ryan Hilinski will face Georgia as the starting quarterback for South Carolina on Saturday. During preseason camp, the question was whether the true freshman could earn a spot as a backup quarterback to senior Jake Bentley.

Hilinski has been the starter ever since Bentley went down in a season-opening loss to North Carolina. And he’s been a pretty good one. He’ll step onto Dooley Field having completed 61 percent of his passes for 912 yards and 5 TDs with 3 interceptions and one rushing touchdown. More than that, Hilinski has been good in big games. He was 36-of-57 for 324 yards and two touchdowns against then-No. 2 Alabama on Sept. 14.

But Hilinski’s story goes deeper that what he does on the football field. He wears the number 3 in honor of his older brother, Tyler Hilinski, who was the starting quarterback at Washington State when he took his own life in January of 2018. During and after the first play of the third quarter of every game, Ryan Hilinski holds his index finger and thumb together and holds up three fingers to the sky to signal his brother in heaven and to draw attention to “Hilinski’s Hope,” the charity the family started to research suicide and depression in young adults. That routine was adapted by South Carolina fans, who join Hilinski in hoisting three fingers at Williams-Brice Stadium.

In another grassroots effort initiated by fans, the Bulldog Nation plans to participate in the “Forever to Three” movement during Saturday’s game. Hilinski’s parents, Mark and Kym Hilinski, now live on Lake Murray in Columbia, S.C. They will be in attendance Saturday.