It would be a stretch to say Saturday’s game against North Texas is the most important one for Georgia so far. But it might be for the Bulldogs’ defense.
Yes, it is against a Conference USA opponent. Yes, it comes after a pair of top-10 foes — with a third one likely coming down the tracks next week. But because of when and where this game falls, what has happened so far and who comes next, it’s crucial that the Bulldogs tighten all the loose ends exposed while giving up 68 points to Clemson and South Carolina the first two games.
There have been signs of improvement. The Bulldogs (1-1, 1-0 SEC) limited South Carolina to six points after halftime in the 41-30 victory Sept. 7 and had a game-turning goal-line stand to boot. Now Georgia has had an extra week to prepare, a weekend to rest and the last few days to tinker before welcoming what should be an overmatched opponent.
It’s one last chance to get better before No. 6 LSU and quarterback Zach Mettenberger arrive Sept. 28.
“Any time you play well you get some energy and excitement from it, and I think it can carry over,” Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said.
“I think the players have done a good job of understanding the things we’ve got to do to become better. They each understand what they have to do individually to improve. That’s been the framework of the last two weeks. We’ll just continue to work. If the guys work they’re going to be fine.”
There’s nowhere to go but up. Georgia’s defense enters Saturday’s game ranked 13th in the SEC in points allowed (34 pg), total yards allowed (460.5) and rushing yards (211.5 ypg). It also ranks 11th against the pass (249 ypg). So statistically at least, the Bulldogs haven’t really been good at anything.
Given there are seven first-year starters and six freshman or sophomores who got their indoctrination against two of the nation’s top offenses, that’s somewhat understandable.
“First of all, we did play two really good offensive teams with outstanding senior quarterbacks and the ability to run the ball,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said.
“Plus, they had coaches that know what they’re doing scheme-wise and all of that, so we played a couple of good teams. … We all know Alabama has one of the better defenses and has had that for a while, and they ran into an offensive team (in Texas A&M) that could move the ball and make plays and score points. You can’t get too crazy about that.
“The thing that we focus mainly on is where do we break down and how can we get better? A lot of it is just fundamentally doing a better job of taking better angles as we tackle, wrapping up better and hustling to the ball better.”
Much of Georgia’s issues were illustrated on one play in the South Carolina game. The Gamecocks ran a simple counter play around left end. But defensive end Ray Drew was sucked inside, linebacker Ramik Wilson was slow getting to the outside and safeties Josh Harvey-Clemons and Tray Matthews took bad angles on the perimeter.
Instead of a modest gain or first-down run, tailback Mike Davis went 75 yards before Damian Swann ran him down short of the goal line. The Gamecocks scored three plays later.
“We’ve just got to eliminate the big plays,” said junior linebacker Amarlo Herrera, the Bulldogs’ defensive captain this week. “We’ve just got to get better. Tackling, tackling in space, angles and just everything overall.”
Georgia also needs to get more pressure on the passer. To date it has recorded only three sacks, and none has come from designated pass-rushers such as outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins.
“It feels like we’re starting to get there,” said Jenkins, a sophomore who’s succeeding SEC sack leader Jarvis Jones. “We’re communicating well and just trying to make sure everybody’s on the same page. It’s coming.”
North Texas should provide a fair test. The Mean Green (2-1) are a veteran team coached by Dan McCarney, a former head coach at Iowa State who won a national championship at Florida as associate head coach for Urban Meyer. They have nine juniors and seniors on offense, are led by a senior quarterback in Derek Thompson (6-foot-4, 218 pounds) and have averaged 465 yards per game.
Last week, North Texas wiped out an 18-point deficit to beat Ball State 34-27. Two weeks ago it went on the road and put a scare into Ohio before falling 27-21.
“I see a team that is very well-coached, and I think they are coming here believing and ready for a big game,” Richt said.
That’s may be true, but anything short of total domination will be unsatisfactory as far has Herrera is concerned.
“You’ve always got to dominate a nonconference game,” he said. “We’ve got to dominate the rest of the year.”