ATHENS -- For an entire offseason, the Georgia football coaches kept insisting their defense would be better this season. Armed with experience and better knowledge of the system, coaches claimed, there would be improvement.
So far, they’re being proven right.
Through four weeks, Georgia ranks 13th in the nation in yards allowed and second only to Alabama in the SEC. That’s more impressive considering the Bulldogs have played two top 10 teams, No. 4 Boise State and No. 10 South Carolina.
“We really felt like we were gonna improve this year. We knew we were gonna be a lot better than a year ago just by virtue of everybody knowing better what they did,” head coach Mark Richt said on Sunday, a day after Georgia held Mississippi to 183 offensive yards in a 27-13 win. “The defensive line has grown up a bunch. Last year we were playing some guys that hadn’t played a lot.”
The scoring defense ranks around the middle of the pack nationally, at 23.25 per game, but many of those points have little to do with the defense. Georgia has given up two defensive touchdowns and two more on special teams, including one at Ole Miss.
Georgia’s pass defense ranks eighth nationally in passing yards allowed. The rushing stats are a bit higher, but Richt pointed out that most of those yards aren’t coming between the tackles.
“We’re stopping the run. All the traditional runs we’ve stopped pretty well, meaning the zones and the powers,” Richt said. “The runs that have gotten us have been maybe reverses and some Wildcats, like against Boise.”
The problem this week for Georgia is that the next opponent, Mississippi State, specializes in those outside runs and gadget plays. Mississippi State use the spread option, and quarterback Chris Relf ran it well last year in a win over Georgia.
Mississippi State (2-2) ranks 45th in the nation in total offensive yards. It is averaging 217.5 yards per game (26th in the country) but is only 75th in passing offense.
Where Georgia will hope to get an advantage is pressuring Relf. Against Ole Miss, the Bulldogs got four sacks, all from the front seven, after getting only one sack during the first three games.
But defensive coordinator Todd Grantham maintained all along that sacks were essentially a superfluous stat, considering he thought his defense was getting pressure. And on Saturday afternoon, following the sack-fest, Grantham hadn’t changed his tune.
“Anybody that says we couldn’t rush the passer really doesn’t know what they’re talking about,” Grantham said. “Because I’ve coached pass rush for a long time. These guys really bust their tail. College quarterbacks are a little different than pro quarterbacks in the sense that they’re gonna take off running and there’s a little more space there sometimes to take off.”
The defense is hoping for a boost this week if captain Christian Robinson can return. The junior inside linebacker has missed the past two games with a foot injury, and Richt said Sunday he was “hoping” Robinson could play this week.
Alec Ogletree, the other starting inside linebacker when the season started, is still far off from returning with a broken foot. But in the meantime the team has been pleased with the production of their replacements. That has included junior Mike Gilliard, freshman Amarlo Herrera and even junior Shawn Williams, who moved down from safety for the Coastal Carolina game.
Williams ended up shifting back to safety at Ole Miss, but Grantham said Williams’ position could end up being a week-to-week decision. Sanders Commings, the team’s most physical cornerback, has also been shifting between cornerback and safety, so Grantham will evaluate each week based on matchups.
“You’ve gotta say, ‘Here’s what the offense does. What have we gotta stop. Is it space plays, is it power plays,’ ” Grantham said. “Then when you see that, (you say) ‘All right, what’s the best combination of players to stop that kind of stuff?’ ”
Bacarri Rambo is leading the nation in interceptions per game. The junior safety has four, and has only played in three games.
Chris Burnette, the starting right guard for the first three games, remains out with a knee injury. Richt said he didn’t think Burnette would be able to practice Monday, so his status for Saturday’s game remains up the in air.