ATHENS – When talk at Tuesday’s weekly news conference turned to the big plays given up by Georgia’s defense, Mark Richt interrupted. “I don’t want to talk about the South Carolina game anymore.
“They beat us, they beat us soundly and congratulations to them,” the Bulldogs coach said. “But we’ve moved forward past that and now correcting mistakes is important.”
Trouble is, Georgia’s mistakes on defense this season have not been limited to the 35-7 drubbing it received in Columbia. The Bulldogs have given up yardage in large chunks to everybody they’ve played this season. The gashes the Gamecocks left in Georgia’s defense were just more notable because of the gravity of the situation.
Against South Carolina, Georgia gave up three plays of 20 or more yards – including a 62-yard pass completion. But that was more the rule than the exception this season. The Bulldogs have given up at least three plays of 20 or more yards in every game, including Buffalo and Florida Atlantic.
In total, they’ve allowed 21 plays of 20 or more yards and 14 plays of 30 or more yards. Missouri recorded the longest pass play (69 yards) and Florida Atlantic the longest run (48).
“It’s not disappointment because we know we have the ability to do just as good as last year or better,” senior cornerback Sanders Commings said. “We’re more angry than anything. We’ve just got to find that swagger and take it to the field on Saturday and we’ll be OK.”
That’s a far cry from what was expected from the 2012 defense, which came into the season drawing comparisons to Alabama, LSU and South Carolina. The Bulldogs were fifth nationally in total defense a year ago.
“There’ve been 13 explosive plays in the pass game in the first part of the season,” said defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, who defines “explosive plays” as 24 or more yards. “That’s way too many. You can’t, but if you take those plays out we’re pretty much where we were last year from a yards per attempt standpoint. But they are there, so you have say why they’re there and you have to make sure you make the proper corrections.”
The chief explanation the Bulldogs offer for that is “miscommunication.” Players and coaches are trying to be careful not to offer it as an excuse, but having four starters miss a total of 12 games due to suspension contributed to that problem. The issue hasn’t been as much playing without those players as it has been all the residual personnel changes that resulted.
For instance, Georgia had three different free safeties in the first six games and three different boundary cornerbacks. Amarlo Herrera started the first four games at “Mo” inside linebacker but has started the last two at “Mike.” Each has distinctly different responsibilities in the passing game.
The end result has been the occasional wide receiver or halfback running free in Georgia’s secondary and two Bulldogs pointing at each other at the end of the play.
“We have no excuses for anything, no matter who’s in or who’s out,” said Herrera, who admitted his misread led to Tennessee’s running back Rajion Neal scoring a wide-open touchdown on a pass in the flat. “. . . Sometimes it’s complicated; we’ve got a lot of things going on out there. If one person doesn’t hear a call or understand what they have to do, then it can mess up everything.”
If a common denominator can be drawn from the Bulldogs’ first six games it is that their defense has taken its biggest licks in the first half. With the exception of the 48-3 win over Vanderbilt, Georgia allowed at least two first-half scores to every other team it played.
Of the 145 points the Bulldogs have allowed this season, 94 have come in the first two quarters of play. That’s an average of 15.7 points for the first half. Conversely, they’ve given up barely a touchdown on average – 6.8 points — in the second half.
That could be the sign of a couple of things: One, Georgia coaches aren’t anticipating what teams are going to do against them; and two, players aren’t reacting well to things they’re seeing for the first time.
“I think everybody has a little something new for you, especially the first couple of opponents,” Richt said. “You can only prepare for what you see. Sometimes there will be things that can catch you off guard but you can correct. Some of it you just get over-aggressive when it comes to stopping the run and wanting to be physical and all that kind of stuff.”
Those halftime adjustments are one of the reasons for optimism for this group, Grantham contends.
“Early on we had some young players that were playing new positions,” he said. “They see something new and sometimes they don’t fit up the right way. Once you get them on the sideline you can show them what it is, they have a tendency to play better. If you look at all our games it’s kind of gone like that. But that’s a credit to the players because they hung in there and kept playing. They understood what we had to do and they made corrections and we won the game.”
It’s bound to get better this week. In Kentucky the Bulldogs are facing an offense that is currently ranks 13th or 14th in the SEC in scoring, total offense, rushing, pass efficiency and third-down conversions. The Wildcats are currently playing without their top two quarterbacks and will start true freshman Jalen Whitlow on Saturday.
“We’re ready to get back to being the same type of defense we were last year,” Herrera said.
That’s still a steep climb. At the moment Georgia is ranked in the bottom half of the SEC in virtually every statistical category. Nationally, the Bulldogs finished last season fifth in total defense, 11th against the rush, 10th against the pass and 23rd in points allowed. This season their ranking in the same categories is 50th, 67th, 39th and 51st, respectively.
“That was the first half of the season,” Commings said. “I think last year we played our best ball in the second half. Hopefully this year we will, too.”
Grantham believes the timing is right for marked improvement.
“I love bye weeks,” he said. “We took a hard evaluation of the things we were doing and made sure everybody understood it, because the main thing is being on the same page and doing their job. [The players took a workman’s like approach in the bye week and I’ve seen progress. I think as we move forward with the continuity we have, we’ll be fine.”
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