Moreno had four runs of more than 10 yards in the game – three of which came on toss sweeps to the outside – but averaged fewer than two yards per carry on his other 23 runs.
That has been the story of much of Moreno’s season since Georgia began SEC play against South Carolina more than a month ago. He has looked as good as ever, but the yards have just been a bit tougher to come by.
“Knowshon is going to break tackles,” head coach Mark Richt said. “The question is, where does he start making people miss and where does he start breaking tackles?”
Lately, most of those broken tackles have come in the backfield, and Moreno’s stats have paid the price.
Moreno hopes to change that trend today when the Bulldogs host Vanderbilt, which currently sports the 10th-ranked rushing defense in the SEC, allowing nearly 130 yards per game on the ground.
In three SEC games so far, however, Moreno is averaging less than four yards per carry after averaging nearly double that against non-conference foes.
Richt said he doesn’t think defenses are putting a particular focus on stopping Moreno early, but admits the sophomore draws plenty of attention.
“I think everybody in this league knows you better stop the run first regardless of who is running,” Richt said. “That is get one of those two safeties and a cornerback involved in stopping the run.”
In recent weeks, Georgia has put a greater reliance on the passing game in hopes of opening up the run.
On Georgia’s past four opening drives – three against SEC opponents – it has run a total of 26 plays, and 19 have been passing plays. Meanwhile, the Bulldogs are averaging nearly 1.5 more yards per carry in the second half of games than the first half over that span, a number that is reflected in Moreno’s stat line as well.
“We’re taking what the defense is giving us,” said quarterback Matthew Stafford, who is averaging 250 yards passing per game, including the first 300-yard contest of his career last week. “They’re loading the box, and we’re throwing those little quick screens. If they’re going to give it to us, we’re going to take it, whatever it is.”
Against Vanderbilt’s defensive scheme, the passing game may not be quite as effective, meaning more of those decisions Stafford makes at the line of scrimmage will end with the ball being handed off to Moreno.
The Commodores lead the SEC in sacks with 19, but Richt said they manage to maintain good downfield coverage despite the pressure they put on the quarterback.
“They’ll come, they do blitz,” he said. “But they’re not just a team that will blitz all out, bringing six guys and only leaving five to cover your five eligibles. These guys will pressure you, but they’ll almost always have one or two safeties deep when they do it.”
The bigger problem for Moreno and the Bulldogs’ running game, however, might be the offensive line.
The Bulldogs will start their fourth different combination of linemen in seven games after starting left tackle Vince Vance went down with a season-ending knee injury last week. Clint Boling will get the starting nod in place of Vance – Georgia’s fourth starting left tackle since it opened fall camp.
The Bulldogs have done a solid job of pass protection thus far, and the athleticism of the line – which now consists of three freshmen and two sophomores – has made runs to the outside a bit more successful, but space up the middle just hasn’t been there.
Against Tennessee, 17 of Georgia’s 40 designed runs were toss sweeps to the outside, a play that garnered the biggest chunk of Moreno’s 101 yards.
“Whatever’s working, that’s what we’re going to do,” Moreno said. “We have some offensive linemen that can run, so it makes it easier to get them outside and get the backs outside.”
The absence of senior fullback Brannnan Southerland and the ineffectiveness of Georgia’s tight ends in the passing game may also be playing a part in the running game’s struggles.
Southerland, a veteran blocker who led the way for most of Moreno’s 1,334 yards last season, missed the first four games of the year following foot surgery and returned to offense for the first time last week.
Meanwhile, Georgia’s tight ends have just three catches this season – and none in the past two games – after Tripp Chandler and Bruce Figgins combined for 24 catches a year ago. Chandler will miss today’s game with a shoulder injury, while Figgins is playing through a banged-up shoulder of his own.
Without underneath receiving targets, opposing linebackers can key in on Moreno and the running game.
“As a back, sometimes you’re going to have to break tackles,” Moreno said. “If things aren’t clear, you have to make it clear. Things aren’t always going to be perfect.”
Still, things may be getting better this week. Southerland will continue to see an increased role on offense, Figgins’ injury status is no longer in question and the offensive line showed dramatic improvement last week – particularly on an 11-minute drive in the fourth quarter that was nearly entirely run-oriented.
Seven games into the season, Richt thinks the tide may have turned and his line has matured, which could mean a long day for Vanderbilt.
“I think a year ago was about the time the line matured, too,” Richt said. “That was part of the reason he had the success he had. The line is maturing right now. The line is growing up even though it is banged up.”