Emerson: Georgia’s title hopes tied to defensive play

September 30, 2013 

GeorgiaLSU

LSU receiver Jarvis Landry (80) catches a ball inside the Georgia 10-yard line during Saturday’s game in Athens.

JASON VORHEES — jvorhees@macon.com

Georgia’s title hopes are tied to the play of a developing defensive unit

ATHENS -- There were a little more than four minutes left in last Saturday’s game when Georgia’s defensive players came to the sideline, having just given up another LSU touchdown. Georgia was behind, its national aspirations on the brink.

This is what defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said he told his players:

“Look, here’s the deal: Our offense is gonna go score. And then we’re gonna have to go win in a two-minute drive. Here are the calls we’re gonna have, you’re gonna have to play it.”

Grantham’s players did just that, and Georgia won the game. It makes for a fine story.

But here’s the problem: If the goal is to win a national title, then depending on the offense to score and the defense to make one big stop is an unsustainable strategy. And Grantham and his players know that.

“Somewhere down the line, it’s gonna catch up to us if we continue to give up big points like that,” freshman cornerback Brendan Langley said.

It was a nice lift for Grantham’s young and inexperienced group that it finally stopped Zach Mettenberger when it mattered most, sealing the game. It was also a nice lift for the same defense, three weeks before, when it made a goal-line stop in the final quarter to basically seal a win over South Carolina.

But the better story for Georgia’s defense would be not creating the problem in the first place. The better story would be if the defense had given up less than these point totals in its four games thus far: 41, 30, 21, 41. Or these yardage totals: 467, 448, 245, 449.

Yes, the quality of the competition (three teams ranked in the top 13) has to be taken into account. So does the youth and inexperience (freshmen all over the place) on Georgia’s defense. This is not meant as an indictment of Grantham. Anybody with a realistic outlook on this season knew things might be rough for the defense, especially early on.

But Georgia’s still-intact national ambitions mean having to run the table, and that includes, if all goes well, the SEC championship game. Those remaining eight regular-season games look very manageable, but as great as Aaron Murray and company are, a hiccup or two is possible. Especially if there’s a reappearance of the offensive line that struggled at Clemson. That was only a month ago, after all.

And if Georgia eventually matches up with, say, Alabama in the SEC championship, or even a rematch with LSU, it can’t simply depend on its offense to carry the load.

“What happened on LSU’s last drive and the fourth-down stop against South Carolina sums up what kind of defense we’ll be in the long run and what kind of hellacious defense we’ll have in the coming years,” said Jordan Jenkins, the team’s sophomore outside linebacker.

The key phrases there being “in the long run” and “in the coming years.”

Head coach Mark Richt was paying more than coach-speak lip service the other day when he said “every game’s gonna be a barnburner till we really get more stout on defense and continue to get our special teams in order.” Well, the special teams were in order against LSU. The defense was not stout.

The run defense and the pass rush were actually pretty good. That has been the case during the first month.

Georgia is limiting opponents to 126.8 rushing yards per game, which ranks a respectable fifth in the SEC, and 39th nationally. For a six-quarter span through halftime of the LSU game, the Bulldogs had allowed a total of 20 rushing yards. Meanwhile, the Bulldogs have nine sacks in four games, tied for third in the SEC in sacks-per-game. Leonard Floyd is becoming a star already, and he is forming the type of pass-rushing tandem with Jenkins that Georgia has not had in a long time.

It’s the secondary that’s the main issue.

Yes, facing a Heisman candidate (Tajh Boyd), a possible first-round pick (Mettenberger) and two senior starters (South Carolina’s Connor Shaw and North Texas’ Derek Thompson) is a factor. But against LSU, there was often mass confusion in Georgia’s secondary. Several times, cornerback Damian Swann -- the veteran back there -- was waving his arms, either unsure of the alignment or screaming for one of the freshmen to get in the right place.

“We gave up some plays that we shouldn’t have given up if we were in the right audible,” Swann said.

Grantham blamed youth, and said he didn’t deviate from the game plan because he felt he would confuse his young group.

Richt, asked to assess how close his defense is to becoming stout, pointed to the success on first and second downs. The hurtful plays, he acknowledged, have come on third downs; for instance, LSU converting 10-of-15.

“I think it’s growing pains,” Richt said. “And you’ve gotta put more pressure up front. The time we did put pressure on the quarterback we did have some success. We had some balls batted, we had some success. So those were good. But when the protection was clean and Zach had the ability to step up and let it rip, we just didn’t cover it well enough.”

The growing pains might continue for a bit, and as long as the offense keeps throwing up points the Bulldogs can survive. But the defense needs to give the offense a bit more margin for error. It needs to show improvement now against weaker competition. Namely this Saturday against Tennessee, whose quarterback situation is messy and whose offense ranks last in the SEC in total offense.

Saturday needs to be a step in the right direction for this defense.

Contact Seth Emerson at semerson@macon.com.

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