What was really known about No. 8 Georgia’s defense heading into Saturday’s showdown with No. 6 Florida?
The Bulldogs had mostly dominated against inferior opponents, save for a handful of long passes given up, and they performed well in a 23-17 win over Notre Dame. But they had yet to face an offense as deep and talented as the Gators’, and there was some uncertainty as to whether the defense was as good as the numbers indicated.
But against Florida, Georgia’s defense answered some of the questions, dominating against the run and making plays when needed against the pass on the way to a 24-17 win.
The true domination came in the ground game. The Bulldogs limited Florida to just 21 yards rushing. Even without sack yardage factored in, the Gators still ran for only 50 yards.
Bulldog head coach Kirby Smart said the plan entering Saturday’s showdown called for smothering the run game in order to make Florida one-dimensional. Defensive lineman Jordan Davis noted that Smart tells his defense they will “suffocate” their opponent if they can eliminate one phase of the offense.
“We were prepared for them to run the ball at us,” Davis said. “We had different personnel for different packages they pulled out. If they weren’t running the ball, we went to Cinco (formation). We just played based off them.”
Davis had his team ready to go more than just schematically. Smart said the sophomore lineman made an emotional speech to the team before the game to fire them up, and he backed up his talk by registering half a sack and helping the defense stifle the Florida run game.
A quiet rushing attack meant the Gators relied on the passing game, an area Smart said worried him coming into the game with facing quarterback Kyle Trask and a deep and experienced group of receivers.
“There’s four guys that are going to be playing in the NFL, and I’m including the tight end,” Smart said. “But they’ve got good wideouts and that was my concern coming into the game. We knew that we may have to give something up to get something back.”
The Gators found success throwing early, particularly to tight end Kyle Pitts who finished the first half with four catches for 78 yards. Trask was just 6-of-11, but big plays enabled him to throw for 106 yards before halftime.
The Florida quarterback ended the day 21-of-33 for 257 yards and a pair of second half touchdowns. But the coverage shored up a bit in the second half, allowing just 10 yards per completion after surrendering over 17 yards per completed pass in the first half. Pitts, meanwhile, was shut out in the second half.
The pass defense also benefited from havoc plays. Havoc has been a buzz word thrown around for months and refers to the defense’s ability to create negative plays, but so far in 2019 it’s mostly been more talk than substance.
But the disruption started early against Florida, as safety Richard LeCounte notched a pass breakup to stop a fourth down attempt on the Gators’ first possession. On the day the Bulldogs notched six passes broken up, one tackle for loss and two sacks, all factors in the havoc equation.
“It’s just great because we work at it every week at practice,” said outside linebacker Azeez Ojulari, who had one of the sacks. “Coming out here and showcasing what we can do, creating that havoc, it’s just great for the defense.”
Creating havoc is one thing. To do it against a talented offense like Florida, Ojulari said, gives the Bulldog defenders plenty of confidence as they continue into a month that features games against Missouri, Auburn, Texas A&M and Georgia Tech.
Those teams are now on notice that this Georgia defense isn’t just a product of its competition: it’s for real. While LeCounte said Saturday’s performance didn’t come as a surprise to any of the Bulldogs, he did say they proved just how good they really are.
“No matter who you play, we come out here and we set the status and we let them know that we’re a hard-nosed football team,” LeCounte said. “We’re going to play ball.”