Over the past two games, a pair of Georgia defenses have emerged from the locker room.
The defense that comes out for the first half has struggled at times, giving up 10 points to Notre Dame (albeit with the help of a muffed punt) and being gashed through the air by a Tennessee team starting a true freshman quarterback.
After halftime, however, a different unit emerges. It’s a defense that is nearly impenetrable, surrendering a grand total of 24 yards and three first downs in its last two third quarters played.
So what contributes to this defensive dichotomy? Head coach Kirby Smart partly attributed it to his players just settling down into the flow of the game.
However, there is a more schematic element to it as well.
“In the history of the really good defenses I’ve been with, you go into a game expecting one thing, and the other team has worked really hard to try to counteract that and get off tendencies to do different things,” Smart said. “You see different stuff because they’re trying to generate plays against you, and that’s been the case for us.”
Take the most recent game against the Volunteers for example. Smart and defensive coordinator Dan Lanning likely didn’t expect freshman quarterback Brian Maurer to come out slinging the ball all over the yard.
However, that’s exactly what happened. Maurer completed 10-of-21 first half passes for 205 yards and two touchdowns, including a 73-yard score to Marquez Callaway.
In the first 15 minutes following halftime, however, Maurer went just 1-for-3 for no yards, was sacked twice and threw an interception.
Despite the evident passion of Smart on the sidelines, though, safety J.R. Reed said the locker room isn’t as full of fire and brimstone as some might imagine.
“Just making adjustments, staying calm, everyone figuring out what we need to do, everyone getting on the same page,” Reed said. “It’s not a lot of rah-rah and yelling and everything.”
Reed said that often, it’s not a change of schematics that’s necessary, but rather just a need for the Bulldogs to do their respective jobs better. It’s when that doesn’t happen that big plays like Callaway’s are possible.
“The things that we do well, I feel like we’re supposed to do those things well. That’s the game of football,” defensive lineman Michael Barnett said. “You practice all week to get those things right, so when we execute them right, we’re happy. But at the same time, those things that we get wrong, we have to fix those things.”
However, there is also very much an element of settling down for the defense as well.
The atmosphere in Knoxville was electric for much of the first half, particularly after the Volunteers struck for the long touchdown pass. Two weeks prior, the Bulldog defenders took the field in arguably the most charged-up environment Sanford Stadium has ever seen when they faced Notre Dame.
It takes a little time to feel things out in games like that. Halftime plays a big role in getting the defense to come back down to Earth.
“I feel like you come out knowing your gameplan a little bit better, knowing your opponent you went against before half so you know what they’re moving like,” outside linebacker Walter Grant said.
Just because the defense plays well after halftime doesn’t mean there’s nothing to fix from the first half. Smart made sure to mention that the coaching staff has to do a better job of preparing the players for different looks they might see from opponents.
But with the ability these defenders have to figure things out after intermission, they can transform from puppies to a vintage junkyard dog defense in the blink of an eye.