The Bulldogs’ roster and staff are fairly tattered at the moment.
After former head coach Mark Richt was fired (despite a 9-win season), the team lost both coordinators to other jobs around the country, as well as their linebackers coach. By Wednesday, they’d lost assistant Thomas Brown to Miami. Tight ends coach John Lilly will call plays for Georgia in Saturday’s TaxSlayer Bowl at Everbank Stadium, and only two defensive assistants are still on staff as of Dec. 30.
Interim head coach (and receivers coach) Bryan McClendon then announced he’d be leaving for South Carolina after the game. New head coach Kirby Smart isn’t even with the program yet, as he’s busy finishing his season with the Tide as they roll toward a national title.
Many like to say that this late in the college football season, players can essentially coach themselves, but in the case of Georgia, those options are becoming limited too.
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A handful of injuries have plagued the Bulldogs, most notably so at running back (starter Nick Chubb went down with a knee injury in October, and though Sony Michel has stepped up admirably the team lost their fullback Quayvon Hicks and their third-string back Brendan Douglas).
To top matters off, the team’s retired mascot died two weeks ago.
And when Georgia began practicing in Jacksonville early this week, the team’s beat writers reported that vultures were circling the field and sitting in the bleachers observing the team.
But don’t count the shorthanded Bulldogs out. They’re stacked with athletes, and despite the jumble of personnel changes and the adversity of injury, be a rather large handful for Penn State.
Three Keys to See
Unlike Georgia, Penn State has essentially its full roster back, and head coach James Franklin touted at the team’s Bowl Media Day that freshman phenom running back Saquon Barkley is back to full health after a long rest.
And while the Nittany Lions faced their own personnel change with the introduction of Joe Moorhead after former offensive coordinator John Donovan was fired, interim offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Ricky Rahne seemed loose and confident in his game plan when he spoke to media after Thursday’s practice.
“Yeah, I mean I think it’s a little difficult to make any big changes, anything like that,” he said. “I think every play-caller has their own personal touch they want to put on the game plan.
“So yeah, there will be a couple things, minor tweaks here and there. Really looking forward to getting out there.”
Georgia has the nation’s best passing defense, with just 302 yards per game and nine passing touchdowns on the season.
And the players are players, he added, and haven’t struggled with the transition.
Instead, they might be a bit more worried about Georgia’s No. 1-ranked pass defense, which gives up just 302 yards per game and has ceded nine passing touchdowns on the season.
“I’ve seen some great things from them. They have some great guys back there and they work together really well, so it’s going to be a big challenge for us,” said Chris Godwin, who is 32 yards shy of a season 1,000-yard receiving mark and leads Penn State’s receiving corps.
“I’m definitely going to try (to beat them on contested catches), but it’s definitely up to us as an offense to execute.”
Godwin stayed as cool as could be when asked about Penn State’s recent personnel shake-up. He said he buys in to whatever game plan assigned to him.
“I think it’s on me, on the players to go out and execute whatever play is called,” he said.
The Nittany Lions have both defensive ends in Garrett Sickels and FBS sack leader and consensus All-American Carl Nassib back and healthy for Saturday, which could be huge when matching up against the Bulldogs’ offensive numbers.
Georgia is No. 77 in the nation in total offense with 381.4 yards per game, No. 102 in passing with 187.1 yards per game and No. 83 in scoring with 26.5 points per game
Georgia is No. 77 in the nation in total offense with 381.4 yards per game, No. 102 in passing with 187.1 yards per game and No. 83 in scoring with 26.5 points per game.
Behind Michel, Georgia will try to punch through the ground game over and over, and has not been much of a threat in the air behind Greyson Lambert, with a 21:12 rushing-to-passing touchdown ratio.
This is both good and bad news for Penn State.
The Nittany Lions could use a break in the air without senior safety Jordan Lucas, who is out with a season-ending shoulder injury, but if Michel breaks through the team’s prodigous first tier, the linebacker unit has actually shown a regression in tackling as the season has continued.
Still, with a month off, young linebackers Jason Cabinda and Troy Reeder are itching to take someone out and Brandon Bell, who was banged up most of the season, should be back to full health and is the most experienced of the starting unit.
Penn State has struggled on special teams all year, but when it came down to containing big returners like Rutgers’ Janarion Grant, the unit stepped up to render him ineffective.
The team will have another challenge in Georgia, which has been very successful in the return this season and has scored three times off opposing punts.
“The thing that really jumps out to us that is going to be a concern is special teams,” said Franklin earlier this month. “Their special teams have been really impressive. Their wide receiver, Isaiah McKenzie, has been electric returner, so that's going to be a real focus for us...trying to contain him.”
On the Nittany Lions’ side, Gregg “Pook” Garrity has earned the start at punt returner. The walk-on receiver hasn’t seen much time this season but according to teammates has shown a “real knack” for the role. He is replacing DeAndre Thompkins, who has fumbled or muffed multiple punt returns this season.