ATHENS – Despite reports to the contrary, Georgia is sporting a Top 10 defense this season. It’s just not the top-10 ranking everybody expected.
Heading into Saturday’s monumental matchup with No. 6-ranked South Carolina in Columbia, the Bulldogs are ranked 10th in the Southeastern Conference in total defense. That’s 10th as in 10 among 14 teams. Not 10th in the nation, as everybody expected this year.
The good news is Georgia (5-0, 3-0 SEC) arrives at the midway point of the season with an unblemished record and a No. 5 overall ranking in the national polls. They’ve just done it with its vaunted defense looking nearly as dominant as was expected.
And now the biggest question mark for the Bulldogs heading into the most anticipated game of the season is, what in the world is going on with your defense?
“It definitely hasn’t gone the way we wanted,” senior defensive end Abry Jones said. “But I think we’ve been strong in the second halves of games and strong in the fourth quarter and we’ve been still coming away with wins. That’s the most important thing to us.”
Jones’ answer is typical of what was offered from pretty much anyone who works inside the Bulldogs’ football complex. That is, Georgia is pretty defensive about its defense.
And it has had its share of conquests. While the Bulldogs have been a bit of a statistical anomaly on that side of the ball, they’ve tended to make important plays at important times.
Case in point, this past weekend’s game against Tennessee. The Vols’ high-powered offense gashed Georgia for 197 yards rushing and 478 overall. But with the game on the line in the final minutes, the Bulldogs forced them into a pair of interceptions and a fumble.
Georgia was similarly opportunistic at the end of its game against Missouri, which had hit it with 371 yards on the night. An interception and a forced fumble at the end allowed the Bulldogs put away a 41-20 victory.
“[Coming into the season] people wanted to talk about whether this was going to be a great defense. But what I said from the beginning was what I’m most concerned about is when the game is on the line are we going to be able to make the play in the moment of truth?” Georgia coach Mark Richt said Tuesday. “ You can have great defensive stats, but if you didn’t get that one stop at the end of the game, you still might have great stats for the day but you lost. You didn’t stop them when you needed to. I was more concerned about are we going to stop people when we have to stop them, when it means the most. “
With the exception of Tennessee, which may have the SEC’s most explosive offense, Georgia hasn’t faced many offensive juggernauts. That’s what makes its defensive numbers so hard to fathom.
The Bulldogs are ninth in the league against the run (147.8 ypg), 10th against the pass (222.4 ypg), 10th overall (370.2 ypg) and 7th against the score (22.0 ppg). That’s a long way from where Georgia ended last season. The Bulldogs finished 2011 ranked fifth nationally in total defense (277.2), 11th in rushing (101.2) and 23rd in scoring (20.6).
Georgia was returning nine starters from that unit, and 12 of the top 14 tacklers.
“I feel fine about the way we’re playing,” Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said. “I understand the issues we’re having. Better yet, I think the players understand the reasons why things happen. They’re very self-correctable.”
Personnel availability certainly has been one issue. The Bulldogs were without All-America free safety Bacarri Rambo and star linebacker Alec Ogletree until last week due to four-game suspensions. Two other starters missed the first two games with suspension and injuries have sidelined All-American linebacker Jarvis Jones defensive ends Abry Jones and Cornelius Washington and noseguard John Jenkins for all or parts of other games.
While the suspended players were able to practice, players contend it’s not the same as playing games. They expect to play considerably better
“The amount of time we got to practice together was limited because we had to get the guys ready that were going to be playing in the games,” said senior cornerback Sanders Commings, who missed the first two games due to a suspension. “But now we’ve got that first game together under our belt and it’s only going to get better from here. We’re not going backwards.”
The absences have required constant lineup shuffles. Receiver Malcolm Mitchell started three games at cornerback; Devin Bowman started one game at corner; Commings played two games at safety, one at corner; Connor Norman started two games at safety; Amarlo Herrera started four games at “Mo” inside linebacker but played the “Mike” position this past week with Ogletree back in the fold.
“I think the newness of the positions some guys played as well as being out there for the first time after four games off has had something to do with it,” Grantham said. “I think as we move forward will we’ll become a little more consistent. Once that happens we’ll start jelling and we’ll be fine.”
That Georgia is still trying to “jell” defensively at the midpoint of the season is not a good thing. It’s especially troubling with a matchup such as the one with South Carolina on the horizon.
The Gamecocks don’t blow away anybody with their offensive firepower or quick-strike capability. But the combination of dual-threat quarterback Connor Shaw and the unstoppable force that is tailback Marcus Lattimore makes South Carolina a very difficult offense to get off the field. The Gamecocks average 409 yards and 36.6 points per points per game.
“It usually takes us a while to get it down the field,” South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said. “Our defense is hopefully only out there 58-63 plays, something like that. I think Georgia’s been scoring so fast and there’s been so may turnovers in their games maybe, their defense is just playing more plays than a lot of the others. But they can make plays all over the place. Even last year we didn’t move the ball very well at all. . . . We’ve struggled scoring a lot of points against Georgia offensively.”
That’s been another issue for Georgia’s defense. It has been put in some difficult positions. Twenty-one of the Vols’ points were attributed to the Bulldogs’ offense giving up an interception for a touchdown and turnovers inside the 10.
But you won’t hear Georgia’s defenders using that as an excuse.
“It’s our job to stop the offense no matter where they get the ball on the field. If they get it on our 1-yard line, it’s our job to stop them.”
Said Abry Jones: “We’ve messed up a little here and there, but I’m not really a stat guy. I just know right now we’re 5-0 and we’re still ranked No. 5 in the country, so that’s good with me.”