Any realistic chance at a national championship probably died here Saturday. It died because Georgia’s weakened offense couldn’t outscore Georgia’s robust-but-rotten defense. It died because the match race between B.J. Upton and Dan Uggla as the most overpaid man in local sports has seen a third candidate emerge.
Todd Grantham earns $850,000 to coordinate a defense populated by four- and five-star recruits. If we throw out North Texas, Georgia’s opponents are averaging 36.5 points. The past two opponents to enter Sanford Stadium have departed with 41 apiece. (Yes, Missouri scored Saturday on a fumble return.) The Bulldogs should be better than this.
On a day when Georgia was missing its two best tailbacks and three of its top four receivers, the defense needed to do the heavy lifting. With 5:54 left in the first half, the D had yielded touchdown drives of 79, 52 and 75 yards. The Bulldogs trailed 21-10, soon to become 28-10 when Aaron Murray was sacked and fumbled.
There have been times — two weeks ago against LSU and a week ago at Tennessee — when the raging offense overrode such defensive largesse, and it came within a dropped two-point conversion of tying this one. But then the defense, which had stopped everything Missouri had tried in the second half, again went belly-up. After quarterback James Franklin left with a separated shoulder, the defense yielded two touchdowns, the first on a flanker pass that ended with cornerback Shaq Wiggins, who’s listed as 5-foot-10, being outjumped in by 6-4 L’Damian Washington in the end zone.
Let’s review: On the road without its best player, having seen its 18-point lead slashed to a deuce, the desperate Tigers found a gadget play that would work against Georgia. The only wonder was that the play came on second down. The Bulldogs usually save their worst for third.
“I felt like we played them the right way (in the first half),” Grantham said. “We just did better (in the second).”
Then this: “We’re a young team (on defense) that does some good things. … It’s more a matter of execution. We’ve got to be good on technique, good in our effort and good at playing fast against these offenses. If we’re not good in any of those, it can create a seam.”
Example: Missouri tailback Marcus Murphy burst through the line on third-and-5 — the Bulldogs entered the game ranked 99th in the land against third-down conversions — and nearly tripped over himself. No defender was near enough to tackle the stumbling Tiger, who recalibrated and scored from 35 yards out to make the score 21-10.
This left Grantham in a sideline funk. He raged first at cornerback Damian Swann and then at everybody. “We should not have given up a touchdown on that play,” Grantham said.
No, the offense wasn’t perfect. With so many missing men, how could it be? Still the Bulldogs gained 454 yards and saw third- and fourth-string tailbacks rush for 157 yards. Murray fumbled on a blindside hit and throw two interceptions, the first of which was a poor read of the Mizzou zone at a terrible time, but Georgia had risen to 4-1 and No. 7 in the land only because of this quarterback and this offense. Even for Murray, a third epic comeback in 15 days was a bridge too far.
Said defensive end Ray Drew: “I would like to see us do some things better. I would like for us to be better at getting off the field on third down, better at holding other teams to low points.”
Said Grantham: “The schemes are sound.”
Then: “I’ve got a responsibility. We’ve got to keep working and keep grinding.”
For Georgia to achieve its bigger goal, it might already be too late. LSU was crowned BCS champion with two losses in 2007, but that was an LSU team that tripped only in overtime. With a 15-point home loss to Missouri, it’s hard to imagine the Bulldogs climbing above a one-loss Oregon or Stanford or Clemson or Florida State — or an undefeated Ohio State or Louisville.
“I’d be a fool to try and think of a way we could get there,” coach Mark Richt said. “We’ve got to keep banging away. If we do, some good things will happen.”
Perhaps an SEC championship will happen, and that would make for a mighty nice consolation prize. Still, there was no diluting the disappointment of Saturday. A young defense that had been tested early should have grown stout enough to bail out the offense. Turns out it hadn’t. Turns out Todd Grantham, who has turned out one excellent defense (in 2011) in 3 1/2 seasons of trying, wasn’t the man with the plan after all.