Guerry Clegg commentary: Defense to blame for this Georgia loss

October 19, 2013 

The CBS camera cut away to Uga IX in the first quarter found Georgia's beloved Bulldog sound asleep. Or perhaps the Dog formerly known as Russ just couldn't bear to watch.

Nah, sound asleep. He's just a dog.

But the Bulldog faithful watched the early goings on against Vanderbilt with one eye shut and the other squinted. Yes, Vandy. There was a time when a trip to Nashville was a break in the schedule, an opportunity to rest starters by the third quarter. There was also a time when a fax machine was a modern marvel. Vandy is no longer one of those teams anyone can take lightly.

For that matter, Georgia is no longer one of those teams that can take anyone lightly. Not with a list of injuries longer than Ramik Wilson's dreads. And not with a chance -- albeit a fading one -- to repeat as SEC East champs. To do so, the Dogs needed to Florida to upset Missouri. Meanwhile, it would have been nice for Tennessee to upset South Carolina.

But absolutely imperative was taking care of their own business in Nashville.

So much for that. The Dogs' 31-27 loss to Vanderbilt not only effectively if not mathematically eliminated them from contention. It will resurrect questions, fairly or not, about the status of the program under Mark Richt. At a minimum, it reinforces doubts about his defensive coordinator, Todd Grantham.

Sure, injuries have decimated the offense. Certainly a healthy Todd Gurley and/or Keith Marshall would have made a difference in the running game. Having Malcolm Mitchell, Justin Scott-Wesley or Michael Bennett would have given Aaron Murray a go-to receiver. The banged-up offense scored just two touchdowns.

And there were two horrendous targeting penalties -- one leading to Ray Drew's ejection, the other against Wilson that nullified a fourth-down stop that very well could have sealed the victory for the Dogs. Wilson's ejection was reversed but, because this might be the stupidest rule written in the history of college football, the automatic first down remained.

Tough break for Georgia.

But this game was lost not because of the injuries or the targeting penalties. It was lost because the defense for the second consecutive week could not handle a freshman backup quarterback. It was lost because three special teams breakdowns led to three of Vandy's four touchdowns.

A fake field goal for a touchdown. A fumbled punt return catch by Damian Swann. A high snap that punter Collin Barber just managed to keep from going over his head.

Special teams breakdowns have been problematical for Georgia under Richt. It's convenient to blame Saturday's mistakes on Richt's stubborn refusal to hire a full-time special teams coach. That criticism is justified in general. They were caught flat-footed when kicker Carey Spear ran for a 3-yard touchdown.

But the other two miscues, Swann's fumble and the bad snap, were just poorly executed plays. Would having a full-time special teams coach have made a difference on those plays? Probably not.

Even so, the defense had opportunities to make plays and did not. They are young, yes. But this has been a recurring theme under Grantham. They gave up only 337 yards. But they couldn't stop Vandy when it mattered most. The Commodores had two touchdowns, a made field goal and a missed field goal on their final four possessions.

And the defense certainly got its share of good breaks. An ill-advised trick play was read beautifully by Shaq Wiggins, who intercepted the pass and returned it for a touchdown. Another interception, this one by Corey Moore, was a flat-out gift. Patton Robinette's pass hit the receiver in the hands, but the bounced out and right to Moore.

So, where to now? The Dogs have a week off before preparing for the always critical home stretch against Florida, Auburn and Georgia Tech. They will have to sweep those games to avoid at least four regular season losses. Injuries and youth notwithstanding, that can be categorized as nothing less than a nightmarish season.

Uga IX might not want to watch.

-- Guerry Clegg is an independent correspondent. You can write to him at sports@ledger-enquirer.com

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