Battle in the trenches: Missouri’s offensive line faces its toughest task of the season as it looks to keep winning streak alive against Georgia

Battle in the trenches: Missouri’s offensive line faces its toughest task of the season as it looks to keep winning streak alive against Georgia

Tennessee tackle Wanya Morris believed that he did enough to contain standout Georgia edge rusher Azeez Ojulari.

As quarterback Jarrett Guarantano dropped back, Morris found the rushing Ojulari and shoved him to the ground.

But Ojulari planted his left arm in the grass and stopped on a dime as Morris flew past. He then dove at Guarantano, wrapped him up and forced the ball free. Before anyone else on the field realized what happened, Ojulari spun around and dove on the loose ball, giving his offense the ball back in the red zone.

It was a game-changing play that helped the Bulldogs turn a four-point deficit early in the second-half into a rout in Athens, Georgia.

“I think the Georgia Bulldogs got one of the better defenses in the country,” Missouri coach Eli Drinkwitz told reporters on Nov. 10. “Their defensive coordinator is from the great state of Missouri and the Kansas City area, so we’re obviously going to have our hands full.”

Georgia may have two losses this season, but it’s not because of its defensive front. With 23 combined four-star and five-star players among the defensive line and linebackers unit, the Bulldogs have plenty of game-wrecking players.

Through eight games, the Georgia defense forced seven fumbles and sacked the opposing quarterback 23 times. Per Secstatcat.com, the unit is holding opponents to 2.22 yards per rush and 7.25 yards per pass. It’s an elite defense in every sense of the word, and recent high-scoring outings against Alabama and Florida are more anomalies than the status quo.

The Bulldogs’ defense runs through Ojulari, whose 19% quarterback pressure percentage ranks third-most in all of the Power Five. His partner at linebacker, Nakobe Dean, ranks 11th in the SEC with 63 tackles while lineman Devonte Wyatt and Malik Herring both have double-digit tackles.

Rescheduled games have been a hindrance throughout the SEC during the 2020 season, but in this case, the postponement helped a Missouri team that struggled with offensive line depth a month ago.

The Tigers had just nine scholarship lineman available for the scheduled Nov. 14 game. On Saturday, they can feel better about going up against that Georgia defensive front with the return of offensive linemen Larry Borom and Xavier Delgado.

Over the past week, the bolstered offensive line looked formidable in wins against Vanderbilt and Arkansas. But when it lines up against Georgia, the difference between quarterback Connor Bazelak having five seconds in the pocket versus three seconds will come down to doing the little things right.

“For us, it’s about execution, it’s about fundamentals,” Drinkwitz said. “Hands inside, having our eyes on the right key, understanding our proper footwork, catching the football, getting the ball out on time. Those are things that we worked on during the bye week.”

The Georgia defense provides SEC opponents with a challenging puzzle to solve. Teams can’t double-team a single player because there is too much talent at every position. Using an additional tight end or running back to chip rushers may buy a quarterback more time, but it also takes options away in the passing game.

Drinkwitz, like every coach before him, will have to pick his poison.

Completely eliminating pressure and sacks against this Georgia front is a herculean task, so the Tigers will need to ensure that when the pocket collapses or chaos occurs in the backfield, the ball is secured. Because creating those turnovers is how Georgia can dominate a game.

Coach Kirby Smart doesn't want quarterback JT Daniels forced to take the offense 80 or 90 yards down the field every drive. He wants the defense to continuously set the offense up with short fields, which they often do.

In earlier games against both LSU and Florida, Missouri turned the ball over only to see its opponent find the end zone the very next play. That is a recipe for disaster against Georgia.

The Tigers dealt with a similar aggressive defensive front in games against Florida and Arkansas. Missouri did well to keep a clean pocket for a half in Gainesville, Florida, until offensive line injuries and the mounting pressure became too much.

“We didn’t deal with pressure [against Florida] really well,” Drinkwitz said. “We didn’t sustain blocks, we didn’t protect the quarterback, catch passes or score points. I tend to think that when you don’t display your ability to handle something, then the other team is going to copy that and see if you’ve created answers.”

The best way to deal with the pressure and help the offensive line is for Bazelak to get rid of the ball early. The Gators found success against the Bulldogs when they ran running back wheel routes, and quarterback Kyle Trask got the ball out of his hands quickly.

Missouri has its own receiving threat out of the backfield in running back Tyler Badie, who scored a touchdown on a wheel route earlier this season and has totaled 211 yards and three touchdowns over the past two games.

If Drinkwitz’s game plan involves a lot of quick slants and short passes to the flat, a receiver like Jalen Knox will benefit.

“We’ll probably run screens, draws, run at them, double team them and run reverses,” Drinkwitz said. “All the kinds of stuff that keeps defensive lines off balance.”

Georgia may have given up 44 points to rival Florida in Jacksonville a few weeks ago, but this is the same defense that held the Tigers scoreless at Sanford Stadium last fall.

Come Saturday, Missouri’s offensive line will face its toughest task of the season. We’ll get to see then how they stack up against one of the SEC East’s premier contenders.

Edited by Jack Soble | jsoble@themaneater.com

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