USC defense facing tough test

USC's defense including South Carolina Gamecocks defensive end Jadeveon Clowney (7), defensive end Chaz Sutton (90) and defensive end Devin Taylor (98) celebrate a sack in the first quarter of the Gamecocks game against Missouri at Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia, SC.

COLUMBIA — Hanging in South Carolina’s locker room this week is a picture of two Georgia players standing on their field after a game and holding a white towel with “BEAST OF THE EAST” written on it in black marker.

USC cornerback Akeem Auguste was under the impression that the photo was taken after Georgia’s win last week over Tennessee, which set up an undefeated showdown between the fifth-ranked Bulldogs and No. 6 USC on Saturday night in Columbia.

“It was cute,” Auguste said of the image, barely masking his sarcasm.

The picture actually came from after Georgia’s win last year over Kentucky, which clinched the Southeastern Conference’s East Division for the Bulldogs, who edged the Gamecocks by one game, despite losing to them.

Though USC’s players might have the wrong idea about the photo’s origin, they understand clearly that they don’t need any faux macho motivation for Saturday’s game against Georgia. The Bulldogs’ offense alone poses a stiff enough challenge for a USC defense trying to continue its success from last season, when it ranked third nationally in fewest yards allowed per game.

Georgia ranks No. 11 nationally, and first in the SEC in offense, with 536 yards per game. The Bulldogs’ 48.2 points per game rank No. 8. The past two weeks, Georgia beat Vanderbilt 48-3 and Tennessee 51-44, while gaining 567 and 560 yards. USC is No. 12 in yards allowed (288.8) and No. 6 in points allowed (11.2).

“Every team makes their own legacy,” USC defensive tackle Kelcy Quarles said, parroting a line he heard from his position coach, Brad Lawing.

And Saturday could end up being a legacy game for these Gamecocks, and their defense. Shut down, or even slow, Georgia’s offense, and USC will move one step closer to crowning itself Beast of the East in 2012.

While the Bulldogs have two promising true freshman tailbacks in Todd Gurley (107.2 yards per game and nine touchdowns) and Keith Marshall (85.6 and five), it is their third-year starting quarterback, junior Aaron Murray, who serves as the offense’s rudder.

Yes, Georgia runs the ball 60 percent of the time, but when Murray throws, he is efficient — 68.2 percent completions for 274 yards per game, 12 touchdowns and three interceptions. His 10.6 yards per attempt rank second nationally.

Murray is a pro-style pocket passer who Lawing said developed over the past two years by not hanging onto the ball as long. Though Murray, at 6-1, is not as tall as a prototypical NFL quarterback, he is projected as a second- to third-round pick for next year’s draft by

From a schematic standpoint, Georgia’s offense impresses Lawing. He said that for running plays, Murray or the coaches (or a combination of both) are “doing a great job of getting them in plays that give them a chance,” by changing the call just before the snap to something more advantageous, based on what alignment the defense shows.

“They run — what did Missouri call it? — old man football,” said Lawing, referring to a derisive comment made about Georgia’s traditional offense by Missouri defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson. “And they run old man football really good. That offense is going to be as good of an offense as we play this whole season.”

Auguste admires Georgia’s varied approach. Murray’s first eight completions against Tennessee were caught by six different players. That is a good sign for the Bulldogs as they try to replace their leading receiver, Michael Bennett, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in Tuesday’s practice. His 24 catches lead the 16 by Tavarres King and Marlon Brown.

Despite Murray’s success, Auguste, a senior who will play in his second game since returning from a groin injury, said he doesn’t put any opposing player on “a pedestal.”

“He really spreads the ball (around),” Auguste said. “At the same time, ain’t nothing really changed about him. He still has the same arm he had two years ago. He still moves around the same way. They probably feel like they’re a lot better, but we’ll see. ... The whole world is going to be watching this game. They said they’re the Beast from the East, so we’re going to see.”