Bold talk in August by some Georgia defensive players has been replaced by the reality of where the Bulldogs stand heading into the second weekend of October.
“I think the defense is not doing horrible but there’s plenty of room for improvement,” defensive lineman Garrison Smith said. “We’ve got to play better. We can’t keep giving up a lot of points and expect the offense to bail us out.”
Certainly not with Georgia’s offense depleted by knee injuries that knocked out tailback Keith Marshall and receiver Justin Scott-Wesley for the season and Michael Bennett for at least two games.
Seventh-ranked Georgia is 4-1 overall with a perception that it’s offense has carried the defense while it goes through growing pains with a bunch of fresh faces in important roles.
The Bulldogs have given up 30 or more points in four of five games entering Saturday’s tilt against No. 25 Missouri, which averages 46.6 points a game.
“We’re obviously a work in progress,” coach Mark Richt said. “We’re battling, we’re fighting and we’re winning as a team right now. We don’t care about the stats. We don’t even really care what everybody thinks about us right now. We’re just lining up and trying to get the best plan and trying to execute it to the best our abilities as coaches and players.”
Back in the preseason, cornerback Damian Swann brushed off what losing seven NFL draft picks off the defense would mean by saying: “If you look at what happened last year, we had some of the top guys in college football, but we didn’t have the best numbers. The way I look at it, I don’t think we can get no worse than what we had last year. I think we can only get better.”
That defense with Jarvis Jones, Alec Ogletree and Bacarri Rambo was considered by some to have underachieved, but the new bunch with unproven talent hasn’t come close to matching them statistically against a rugged schedule.
Georgia, under defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, is giving up 403.8 yards a game, up from 357.8 last season. The Bulldogs are allowing 264.6 passing yards a game, 97th in the nation after finishing eighth last season at 175.64. Georgia is giving up 32.2 points per game after holding opponents to 19.6 last season.
“There was a different expectation going into last season than there was going into this season,” Richt said mentioning nine players from the 2012 defense now playing in the NFL, including two undrafted free agents. “We’re learning. We’re growing and sometimes growing is painful at times. I’m not saying we’re enjoying every bit of it, but we also have to understand it takes time.”
The rush defense is where the Bulldogs have shown big improvement, going from 182.1 yards per game to 139.2.
Some fans’ patience with Grantham can wear thin while waiting for young players to mature.
Athletic director Greg McGarity got this question on an online chat this week from “Bart”: “With Coach Grantham now making ($850,000)/year, do you feel it’s fair to expect him to at the very least field a team in year 4 that does not resemble a Chinese Fire Drill pre-snap? And I think it’s also fair to say that youth cannot be used as an excuse, considering last years upperclass-led defense faced the exact same problems week in and week out. Thoughts?”
McGarity had a succinct response: “Bart – thank you for the comment. We are very confident in Todd’s ability to lead our defense.”
Georgia has started six freshmen on defense: safeties Tray Matthews and Quincy Mauger, linebacker Leonard Floyd, cornerbacks Brendan Langley and Shaq Wiggins and defensive lineman Chris Mayes.
“It’s a little bit of a transition, but teams like Georgia their transition I think is pretty easy,” Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said. “Up front, I think they’re very, very good and they’re playing very well and they have good athletes. I think their secondary, they’re young in a lot of ways but certainly they’re very athletic.”
The Bulldogs gave up 14 fourth-quarter points on touchdowns drives of 75 and 80 yards against Tennessee.
“We had a chance to get off of the field on some third downs and fourth downs and it really gets down to just executing or just playing the moment,” Grantham said. “Some of that is you just have to have enough maturity to handle the situation. You’ve got to be able to take someone’s best shot and put them away. You’ve got to finish people off. When you’re on the road and you’re ranked like we are and you’re getting their best shot, you’ve got to be able to finish off.”
Grantham said he saw his players finish off games against South Carolina and LSU at the end.
Georgia players say they are upbeat about where they are.
“We stopped them last game when we had to, so we can do it every week,” linebacker Amarlo Herrera said.
Of course, that stop was aided by a fumble through the end zone when Pig Howard dove for the pylon in overtime.
“We were excited that we won,” outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins said, “but at the same time we knew we needed to fix some things because that game shouldn’t have been as close as it was. … It is a little bit frustrating, but we know we can fix it. We just need to fix it now, pronto, before we get too late in the season.”