GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The Georgia Bulldogs lost their star running back in the offseason and replaced him with two true freshmen. Normally, that would be a setback, but in their case it looks like an upgrade.
Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall, a pair of recruits Florida coveted, are two of the best runners in the SEC and have combined for 158.6 rushing yards per game and 14 touchdowns.
“Those young guys are really doing a good job filling in,” Gators defensive tackle Omar Hunter said. “They run physical. They're fast. They can get out in the open field and make things happen.”
Hunter and his fellow defenders get a chance to humble those freshmen Saturday when No. 3 Florida takes on No. 12 Georgia at EverBank Field in Jacksonville (3:30 p.m., CBS). The Gators have the No. 3 run defense in the SEC and will take on the conference's sixth-best ground game.
Florida (7-0, 6-0 in the SEC) held Heisman Trophy candidate Marcus Lattimore, who played despite a hip injury, to 13 yards on three carries in last week's 44-11 win over South Carolina. Zac Stacy, the all-time leading rusher in Vanderbilt history, managed 86 yards against the Gators two weeks ago.
In Florida's 14-6 win over LSU, the Tigers' trio of Spencer Ware, Kenny Hilliard and Michael Ford totaled 51 yards. Those three are averaging 140.1 yards per game otherwise.
Tennessee running back Raijon Neal's 87 rushing yards in Week 3 stand as the most productive game any running back has had against the Gators this season.
Despite bringing back nearly the same personnel, Florida's run defense is immensely improved after a season in which four opposing running backs — including one from Furman — posted 100-yard games.
“Not a lot of missed tackles like last year,” linebacker Jelani Jenkins said. “I think just experience and knowing the system a lot better, we're able to make more plays.”
Gurley is the greater concern of Georgia's two backs and is averaging 88.9 yards per game and 6.7 per carry. His 622 rushing yards ranks fourth among SEC running backs, one spot behind Florida's Mike Gillislee at 652. Marshall adds 69.7 yards per game and 7.0 per attempt.
The Bulldogs (7-1, 5-1) had prized freshman Isaiah Crowell, who ran for a modest 81 yards on 18 tries against Florida last season. He helped them win the SEC Eastern Division by rushing for 850 yards and five touchdowns, but cut his Georgia career short with off-field trouble.
Crowell caused headaches with several disciplinary issues, the last being a felony charge for possession of a weapon in a school zone over the summer. Bulldogs coach Mark Richt cut him loose and took his chances with Gurley and Marshall, two players who had never set foot on a college field.
“We didn't change anything at all, other than we just tried to teach the young guys what to do and just see what would happen,” said Richt, who is from Boca Raton. “It was pretty early in camp when we realized both of those youngsters were pretty darn good.”
Florida is familiar with Gurley and Marshall from recruiting, though defensive coordinator Dan Quinn does not believe that amounts to any advantage for the Gators. Seven games in, all of their tendencies and abilities are known.
Quinn's major concern is their ability to get outside, whereas Crowell presented more of a straight-on threat last year. Gurley (6-foot-1, 218 pounds) and Marshall (5-foot-11, 216 pounds) are strong runners up the middle, but also have the speed to hurt the Gators on the perimeter.
“One of the things that these guys do best is they are bounce-out runners,” he said. “They've got real speed to get the edge.”
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