To this point, the two-headed monsters the Texas Longhorns have seen have often come in the form of an elite pass-catching pair. Oklahoma’s Marquise Brown and CeeDee Lamb, West Virginia’s David Sills V and Gary Jennings Jr., or Texas Tech’s Antoine Wesley and Ja’Deion High each come to mind, just to name a few. More times than not, said pairs are accompanied by an elite-level quarterback, whether it be Kyler Murray, Will Grier, or Alan Bowman — the Longhorns were lucky enough to avoid the latter during their 41-34 win in Lubbock.
Such is life in the Big 12.
As far as the Sugar Bowl is concerned, though, with the Georgia Bulldogs occupying the opposite sideline, Todd Orlando’s defense will come face-to-face with a different type of two-headed beast — a daunting ground game spearheaded by D’Andre Swift and backfield mate Elijah Holyfield.
The backbone of the nation’s third-best offense, per S&P+, Swift and Holyfield have collectively amassed 1,993 yards and 17 touchdowns this season on only 302 attempts, allowing the Bulldogs to boast one of the more balanced, first-rate backfields in college football — for comparison, Sam Ehlinger, Tre Watson, Keaontay Ingram, and Daniel Young combined for 1,949 yards on 485 carries.
According to Pro Football Focus, 1,238 of those yards have come after contact.
D'Andre Swift and Elijah Holyfield combined for 17 touchdowns and 80 additional first-down runs this year pic.twitter.com/iJRSRYCN18— PFF College (@PFF_College) December 10, 2018
Two of the top six rushers in the SEC, despite each ranking outside of the top five in carries, Swift and Holyfield feature similar, yet complementary skillsets, which provides additional complications when attempting to game plan against them; successfully, at least.
Essentially serving as the headliner with 1,037 yards and 10 scores, Swift is the shiftier of the two backs with plenty of breakaway speed, though at a stout 5’9, 215 pounds, he still presents the power and willingness to lower his shoulder and bulldoze would-be tacklers. A no-nonsense back who won’t waste much, if any movement, Swift excels at finding his spot, making a cut — or two if necessary — and exploding upfield.
Such a skill set has paved the way for Swift to surpass the 100-yard mark four times in his last six appearances, including a 186-yard explosion in a 27-10 win over No. 24 Auburn.
Furthermore, he’s a formidable receiving threat out of the backfield, with his 27 receptions collecting 267 yards and two touchdowns.
Holyfield, on the other hand, could technically be dubbed as the thunder to Swift’s lightning, though he certainly isn’t limited to that typical power back stereotype.
Yet another big body in Georgia’s backfield at 5’11, 215 pounds, Holyfield would rather run through you than around you, though he’s also plenty capable of running right by you as well. Just as Swift’s shiftiness and speed is complemented by his powerful running at the point of attack, Holyfield’s steamroller style comes equipped with plenty of speed and shiftiness of his own, and he, too, displays one-cut decisiveness and impressive change-of-direction ability.
Unlike Swift, the son of boxing legend Evander Holyfield has hardly been utilized as a pass-catcher out of the backfield, but the Bulldogs’ backup is averaging 6.5 yards per carry and is just 44 yards — a mark he’s met every week since the season-opener — from joining Swift in the 1,000-yard club.
When packaged together, along with some help in the form of 562 yards and five touchdowns from James Cook and Brian Herrien, the pair provides Georgia with a rushing attack that ranks 7th in S&P+ and rushing marginal efficiency, which will mark the second-best ground game Texas has seen this season — the best being Oklahoma, which leads the nation in rushing S&P+.
In two tries against the Sooners, Texas sacrificed a total of 351 rushing yards and three scores to the Sooners. However, there is a substantial difference between the top 10 rushing offenses of Oklahoma and Georgia — ball-carrying ability from the quarterback position.
Of those 351 yards and three touchdowns, 131 yards and one score were credited to Heisman-winning quarterback Kyler Murray — Texas limited Oklahoma’s other rushing options to just 120 yards on 50 attempts; a mere 2.4 yards per carry.
Though Georgia’s offense does present a rushing wrinkle in backup and expected transfer quarterback Justin Fields, who’s largely been utilized in run-heavy sub-packages, he’s seen only 38 carries this season, producing 294 yards (sacks adjusted) and four touchdowns. Unlike when defending against Murray, who thrives on makeshift scrambles and is nearing 900 yards on the season, not only is Fields a backup, and one whose role may be minimal as he’s exploring an exit from Georgia, but the role he has had this season has been fairly predictable. Fields has thrown only 39 passes as a freshman and 24 of those attempts came in three wins over overmatched foes in Austin Peay, Middle Tennessee, and UMass.
Throughout the other 10 games, he’s attempted just 15 passes, so should Fields see the field at times in place of starting gunslinger Jake Fromm, whose sack adjusted rushing total is a mere 59 yards, odds are Texas’ defense can prepare for a designed run.
While the fact that preventing Bulldog passers from running wild will prove easier to defend than frantically chasing the elusive Murray, the fact that Georgia’s ground game is nearly as elite as Oklahoma’s, despite the lack of an every-down rushing threat at quarterback, speaks volumes of the two-headed monster that is Swift and Holyfield. Sure, Texas has seen its share of praiseworthy ball-carriers this season: Oklahoma’s Kennedy Brooks and Trey Sermon, Oklahoma State’s Justice Hill, Kansas State’s Alex Barnes, Iowa State’s David Montgomery, and Kansas’ Pooka Williams each fit the description.
Swift, however, may very well be the best running back Texas will have seen this season, and Holyfield is almost undoubtedly the best backup running back in college football.
That likely doesn’t serve as welcomed news for a Texas defense that ranks 44th in rushing defense S&P+, and ranks even more sub-par in rushing marginal efficiency and opportunity rate, coming in at 81st in each category.
Worse yet, slowing Georgia’s ground game won’t be as simple as swarming the box and daring Fromm and the Bulldogs to beat Texas through the air because, well, they can, and they can so so with tremendous efficiency. Although Georgia averages only 227.2 passing yards per game, which ranks 70th nationally and would be the eighth-best effort in the Big 12, the Bulldogs rank 4th in passing S&P+, 5th in passing marginal efficiency, and 7th in passing completion rate (68.6%).
Such efficient clips were largely reached by the Bulldogs doing what they do best: relying upon an elite ground game to open open the field and play-action pass opportunities, and then trusting in their Manning Award finalist in Fromm to make the proper plays, which he often did en route to the nation’s third-best passer efficiency rating (175.8). But that does all begin with Swift and Holyfield having their way on the ground, and Georgia’s dynamic duo is exactly where Texas’ defensive game plan will need to begin if the Horns hope to celebrate a Sugar Bowl victory before heading home from New Orleans.