October 9, 2013

Searching for answers

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Nobody's throwing helmets, pitching fits in the locker room or punching holes in the wall.

That said, when it comes to the issues that continue to plague Georgia's defense five games into 2013, linebacker Jordan Jenkins knows it's time for that to change.

"It is a little bit frustrating but we know we can fix it. We need to fix it now, pronto, before we get too late in the season," he said. "We need to take the pressure off the offense. We don't want to be the type of defense that has to rely on the offense to win."

But so far, that's been exactly the case.

Take last week's game against Tennessee.

The Vols came into play ranked last in the SEC in total offense, but 7th-ranked Georgia (4-1, 3-0) still needed a strong effort by its injury-riddled offense in order to pull out the 34-31 overtime win, a game the Bulldogs led at the half 17-3.

"We've got to do better on stopping teams because they're scoring too many points," safety Josh Harvey-Clemons said. "I feel we're doing as good as far as winning the games and making the plays when they count but we have to be good the whole game, I guess you could say."

Jenkins couldn't agree more.

"That game should not have been as close as it was," he said. "We knew we had things to work on."

There's no question about that.

If Georgia struggled to stop Tennessee, what's going to happen Saturday against No. 25 Missouri, which ranks second in the second in both scoring (46.6 points per game) and total offense (543.8 yards per game)?

Granted, three of the victories for the Tigers (5-0, 1-0) have occurred over the likes of Murray State, Toledo and Arkansas State. But last week's 51-28 victory at Vanderbilt opened some eyes while the Bulldogs - although they've had their moments defensively - haven't shown that they can consistently slow anybody down.

The stats tell the story.

Georgia ranks at or near the bottom of the SEC in some very important defensive categories.

The Bulldogs come in last in scoring defense, allowing 32.2 points per game, 12th in pass defense (264.6), 10th in total defense (403.8), 13th in interceptions (1), 12th in pass defense efficiency (147.6), while opponents are converting 44 percent of their third downs - last in the SEC.

While those numbers are obviously scary and need correcting, finishing out games has also been a problem.

Last week's effort against Tennessee was a prime example, although there have been others.

"You go back to Saturday, even in the first half, I think there was 31 plays, 127 yards," defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said. "LSU first half, they had 13 yards rushing (in the first half) then we gave up some explosive plays in the middle but we came back and finished. We've just got to continue to work and be consistent for the entire game."

Georgia's issues on third down is appears to be the biggest burr under head coach Mark Richt's saddle.
Getting opponents to third down has not been the problem. The Bulldogs have done that just fine.

However, opponents have consistently found ways to convert, keeping drives alive which ultimately have resulted in more points and more pressure on the Georgia offense to do its thing.

"When you get them to third and long, you should win the down," Richt said. "That's why you fight so hard to get them in third and long, but we've given up way too many third and longs. We do need to improve in that area, whether it's pressure on the quarterback, or maybe we cover better and force the quarterback to hold the ball that way. We have to find out week by week what's the best strategy.

"We just have to execute on that down and get our guys off the field. Even if you did it twice more per game, I think it's a huge difference. If they're getting first downs on first downs and second downs, and we're not even getting them to third down or it's always third and short, then I'd really be concerned. But we're getting there."

So, what's been the problem?

Yes, the Bulldogs are young, especially in the secondary where four true freshmen - Tray Matthews, Quincy Mauger, Brendan Langley and Shaq Wiggins - have played extensive roles.

But cornerback Damian Swann has struggled as well.

On Tuesday, Richt uncharacteristically singled out the junior's inconsistent play.

Meanwhile, freshmen like Wiggins and Mauger continue to have to learn on the fly. Last week, Wiggins started in place of Langley,

"(Wiggins and Langley) are going to play. At the time we did it to break up the game plan, one guy (Swann) was in base, one guy (Wiggins) was in Nickel to try and lighten the load for those guys," Grantham said. "This past game it was all Nickel so that's why it ended up being what it was."

If you're looking for bright spots, Georgia has had its moments stopping the run, ranking a decent sixth in the SEC allowing 139.2 rushing yards per game while the team's 12 sacks tie the Bulldogs for fifth.

Granham denied the notion that his defense is too difficult for some of his young players to understand.

"That doesn't have anything to do with it in my opinion. You've just got to go. To me, the LSU game was more about technique and just making plays on the ball," he said. "I think in this past game when you look at it there were some situations, and it really starts in the fourth quarter, that we had a chance to get off the field on some third and fourth downs. It just gets down to executing and playing the moment and some of that is a little bit of you've got to have enough maturity to handle the situation and you've got to be able to take someone's best shot and put them away."

But as long as the Bulldogs keep winning, Richt said he won't be overly concerned with how they do it.

"We're obviously a work in progress. 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 every day lining up and trying to get the best plan and trying to execute it to the best of our abilities as coaches and players," he said. "I'd much rather have a defense or an offense make the play at the moment of truth. I've been saying it for two years now. It doesn't matter what your stats are if you can't get the stop when you need it. If you can't get the touchdown when you need it or kick the field goal when you need it, you're going to lose. There's going to be a lot of close games because we play in that type of league. We've been playing that type of schedule so far. The goal is to win and move on, and that's kind of what we've been doing after game one, so hopefully we can continue to do that."

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