JACKSONVILLE – If Penn State senior defensive tackle Anthony Zettel is close to being correct with a statement he made here Friday in the final press conference leading up to Saturday’s TaxSlayer Bowl, the Georgia offense has quite the challenge when it confronts the Nittany Lions at EverBank Field.
“I don’t feel like the underdog in this game,” said the 6-4, 284-pound Zettel. “I’m biased but I feel like we’ve got the best front seven in the country. We’re healthy so I’m up for the challenge and our defensive line is up for the challenge.
“Georgia has a big, physical offensive line,” said Zettel. “They have a lot of talent, savvy guys. Going against Michigan State and Ohio State, they’ve very similar. Obviously, with a lot of highly-recruited guys, you’re going to have a lot of talent and skill up there. It’s going to be a good challenge for our defensive line and again, I think we’re up for the challenge.”
When the Bulldog captains, along with interim head coach Bryan McClendon, took the podium for their session of the press conference inside the club areas of EverBank Field, Georgia senior offensive tackle John Theus was told of Zettel’s remark and subsequently asked if he thinks Penn State’s defensive front seven is as good as Alabama’s, whom the Bulldogs had considerable problems against in this past season’s 38-10 loss to the Crimson Tide.
Theus wouldn’t bite on that one. “They’re definitely a little different,” he said. “Alabama … you can debate who’s better and who’s not. But both of them are very good front seven’s. Having played ‘Bama, we’ve seen them first-hand and we’ll see Penn State first-hand Saturday. So if you ask me after the game, I can tell you more then.”
Theus, playing back in his hometown this week, knows it’s not going to be easy for the Bulldogs’ offense, which has sputtered greatly at times this season, to move the ball against the tough State defensive unit. And of course, he personally has the huge task of going against the Nittany Lions’ Lombardi Award winner, 6-7, 272-pound senior defensive end Carl Nassib.
“It’s going to be a challenge for me and the whole O-line as a whole,” said Theus. “They have a very good defensive line and Nassib is a great player. Obviously, he won the Lombardi Award and is kind of a little different player than I’ve faced. He’s a long, big guy and very talented, high motor and it’s going to be a good challenge for me. But I think the whole offensive line is looking forward to the challenge tomorrow.”
On the other side of the ball, the Georgia defense also will be confronted with slowing down Penn State’s 2,300-yard passer, quarterback Christian Hackenberg, as well as 1,000-yard rusher Saquon Barkley.
“I’ll start off with the running back,” said Bulldogs’ senior outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins. “He (Barkley) is a helluva player. I watched one play yesterday on film where he dragged a guy about 10 yards before getting a touchdown and that just goes to show everything about what he brings to the table. He’s a big physical guy, 220 pounds, and the kid gets after it. So it’s going to be fun getting after a running back of his caliber. I personally like a guy that plays power too and it will just be a game of will power. And Hackenberg,” added Jenkins, “he’s a great quarterback and if you let him, he can definitely dominate the game.”
And related Georgia senior inside linebacker Jake Ganus, the Bulldogs’ leading tackler and Most Valuable Player for the 2015 season: “Hackenberg is definitely an NFL quarterback. He can put the ball where he wants it. We can’t let him get comfortable in the pocket. We’ve got to get pressure on him, try to confuse him a little bit and get him in third and long and second and long situations. If we give him time, he’ll find the receiver and make the throw. But he’s a great player and it’ll be a great challenge for our defense.”
Nittany Lions QB Hackenberg and head coach Franklin expressed similar respect for the Georgia defense Penn State will be going against at high noon on Saturday.
“I think the Georgia defense is very talented and I respect what they’ve done,” said Hackenberg. “Up front, I think they’re very similar to the Ohio States and Michigan States we’ve faced. They’re very physical on defense so I think it’s going to be a great challenge for us and I think we’re ready for it. Like I say, I have a lot of respect for what they do.”
Franklin, when asked about facing the Bulldogs when he was head coach at Vanderbilt and the subsequent verbal confrontation with then Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, drew chuckles when he responded, “I’d rather just talk about the win over Georgia and not that other incident.
“Defensively, I think Georgia’s a very talented team,” Franklin then offered. “They have the No. 1 pass defense in the country. They also have a talented tailback – they go out and sign a 6-star tailback every year that makes big plays for them in their system. So it’s going to be a tremendous challenge for our guys to be ready for that.”
Thus, the stage is set for this year’s TaxSlayer Bowl – the former Gator Bowl if you will – and McClendon and his team leaders who addressed the media here Friday seemed confident that the Bulldogs are ready for battle … ready to cap this 2015 campaign with a 10-3 record and send this particular senior class out with 40 career victories, a noteworthy accomplishment that these Bulldogs could hang their hats on the rest of their lives.