It continued with a subtle step forward, a consistent effort against one of the top defenses in the country two weeks later against No. 1 Florida.
Saturday, the dam burst open as Georgia’s beleaguered group of tailbacks finally exploded against an overmatched Tennessee Tech team, racking up 304 yards rushing and three touchdowns in a 38-0 win.
That’s what Caleb King calls a trend, and he’s betting the improvements continue as Georgia wraps up its final three games of the season.
“Every game and pretty much every practice we work hard at it, so I know we’re just going to get better and better,” said King, who made his first start of the season at tailback, picking up 71 yards on 12 carries. “We’re going to come out and showcase our skills better every week.”
Back in August, when hopes were still high and it didn’t take much convincing to believe Georgia’s offense could be explosive, Richt shrugged off what many considered a glaring hole for the Bulldogs.
Knowshon Moreno was gone, and in his place was a pack of unproven tailbacks that Richt promised would fill the void. They were too talented not to, he said.
Six weeks into the season, however, that promise had evaporated, and what was left was one of the most inept running games in the country. Things looked bleak.
As Georgia gets set to host Auburn this week, however, that confidence has returned in spades.
“Pretty much this whole year people have been down on our running game, so to come out and get over 300 yards, that’s a good look for us and it brings good momentum for the next game at Auburn,” King said.
The big plays came from numerous sources against Tennessee Tech. Branden Smith took a direct snap and ran 52 yards for a score. He had 72 yards on just three carries in the game.
Washaun Ealey, the true freshman who lost a starting job due to some ineffective pass blocking, showed he needs to be in the lineup by tallying 89 yards on seven carries, including two touchdowns.
Even Richard Samuel, the demoted former starter, got in the act, chipping in with 20 yards in the fourth quarter.
“We’ve got a little competition there, but those guys are running hard,” offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said. “You saw guys breaking tackles (against Tennessee Tech), we’re getting more confidence up front, and we’re on a roll now. Confidence has a lot to do with what you’re doing as a football team, and those guys get a little confidence and that’s good.”
The mix at tailback was encouraging, too, King said. With six players fighting for time at the position, none with starting experience prior to this season, it has been a blank slate for the ground game. But as the season has progressed, King said he thinks the coaching staff is finally getting a feel for how each runner can compliment the next.
“From the beginning you could tell everybody just had a raw talent, so I knew it was going to be hard for everybody to find their position and their fit to do what they do, but by the end of the year, you’re seeing what happens,” King said. “We’re jelling together, and I think we’re going to be good.”
The offensive line is finally rounding into form, too.
Georgia expected a solid group of nine experienced players ready to work this season, but early injuries to Josh Davis, Trinton Sturdivant and Tanner Strickand thinned the ranks. The unit struggled mightily to open running lanes, but things have changed since a shake-up in personnel two weeks ago.
Clint Boling moved from right tackle to left, allowing burly Cordy Glenn to shift inside to left guard, and Josh Davis returned from a shoulder injury to team with Chris Davis on the right side of the line.
The thought process was that Glenn and Chris Davis offered more size up the middle, and it would be easier for the line to cover a struggling tackle in pass protection than to help a struggling guard open up running lanes. The move worked.
“The intensity with which they’re playing, it’s really given us a good shot in the arm up front,” Richt said.
Georgia entered play Saturday last in the SEC in rushing offense and 99th nationally, so the breakout performance came as a bit of a surprise, even against an FCS opponent like Tennessee Tech.
Richt said he expected more of a balanced attack, but with the backfield producing so consistently, the game plan shifted and Georgia ended up running the ball on 39 of its 57 offensive plays.
Improving on last week’s numbers might be a tall order, but Richt is confident that the ground game is finally taking shape.
King is likely to start again, he said, but suddenly those weapons that gave Richt such confidence in August all appear ready for deployment. After a season of struggles, finding enough carries for a strong corps of runners is a nice problem to have.
“I think it’s all just starting to come together,” Richt said.