When your humble columnist was in high school, his basketball team practiced in a gym used by a college volleyball team. Their scoreboard had a random sign — nobody was ever sure who wrote it, or who it was directed at, or exactly what it meant:

“YOU CAN’T PASS IF YOU CAN’T POUND”

As Ohio State approaches its era-defining matchup with Georgia on Saturday, it does seem pretty clear that if the Buckeyes can’t pound, it’s going to be really hard to pass on the Bulldogs … and thus, to win.

Can Ohio State run on the Bulldogs? And is it a definitive question for this game?

First, the facts. Ohio State was 28th in the FBS in rushing this season, averaging 198.5 yards per game. The Buckeyes’ 5.49 yards per carry was 10th best. Ohio State’s offensive line allowed just 44 tackles for loss (3rd fewest in FBS) and Ohio State’s 127 yards lost on tackles for loss tied for 2nd best in FBS. Ohio State has rushed for 200 yards in 6 of its 12 games. Only one of those games was within 29 points — the 21-7 win at Northwestern in a near-blizzard. The last time Ohio State rushed for 200 yards in a game and lost? That would be 2013 against Michigan State.

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But then, Georgia. The Bulldogs have the best rushing defense in the FBS (76.9 yards allowed per game). Their 2.93 yards per rush is 5th best in the country and the 5 rushing touchdowns they’ve allowed all season are the second fewest. Not only did Georgia not allow 200 yards rushing in a game this season, they only allowed 100 3 times. Only in the opener against Oregon did an opponent rush for more than 103 yards. Oregon managed 140 — and lost by 46 points. The last time Georgia allowed 200 yards rushing? That’d be 2018 against LSU. Since that game, Georgia has held opponents under 50 yards rushing 17 times. Twice, they’ve held opponents to negative rushing totals. In 2022, UGA has allowed exactly 4 runs of 20+ yards.

Ohio State, then, starts in a dangerous spot. Add in the absence of TreVeyon Henderson, who is probably one of the few players in the nation who has the do-it-all combination of skills to give Georgia genuine trouble. Granted, Miyan Williams isn’t chopped liver. In fact, not only is he OSU’s leading rusher, but his yards per carry and red-zone numbers are better the Henderson’s. Ryan Day has vowed for a bigger role for freshman Dallan Hayden. Williams has had 4 100+ rushing games this season and Hayden has had 3. But can Ohio State win this game rushing for, say, 70 yards against Georgia?

Ohio State is 4-2 in the last 5 seasons when it doesn’t rush for 100 yards, so it’s not as if there isn’t a path. Iowa held OSU to 66 yards rushing this year, and Ohio State won 54-10. Still, that game is 1 of only 2 in the last decade in which OSU’s rushing total came in under the 77 yards per game Georgia is allowing. The other? Last year’s loss to Michigan.

A potentially lackluster ground game for OSU probably puts CJ Stroud behind the chains — and that hasn’t been a good thing in 2022. For instance, on 3rd down and 7+ yards to go, Stroud is just 20-for-41 passing for 421 yards, 3 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions. Only 15 of those 41 passes results in 1st downs. And should Ohio State — unable to run the ball, backed into a corner on passing downs — fall behind in the game, the news is even worse. When Stroud is behind by more than 7 points this year, he’s 11-for-19 passing for 124 yards, 0 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions.

Not surprisingly, the same trends hold for Georgia’s defense. On 3rd and 7+, opposing passers are 27-for-62 for 258 yards, 1 touchdown, and 2 interceptions (with only 11 of the 62 passes resulting in 1st downs). When UGA is ahead, opposing passers have 10 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.

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Ohio State doesn’t HAVE to run the ball well to beat Georgia. But if Ohio State can find even a few modest creases, their odds go up exponentially. After all, maybe you can’t pass if you can’t pound.