ATHENS -- Aaron Murray remembers watching two years ago when the Georgia offense couldn’t seem to score enough points to win. Even last year, when Murray was the first-year starting quarterback, there were games where scoring a lot still wasn’t good enough.
This year is different. Georgia’s defense is so improved, ranking in the top 10 nationally, that there could be a new strategy for the Bulldogs’ offense: Don’t mess it up.
“We’ve just gotta take care of the ball,” Murray said. “Protect the ball, no turnovers, make the plays when they’re there.”
So does this mean a new Georgia? A ball-control team that tries to ride its defense? Not quite, as Murray added later. But with a defense that ranks sixth nationally (out of 120 teams) and an offense that ranks 57th, it is bound to affect the team’s strategy going forward.
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“If you feel like your defense is taking care of business, you do tend to want to put it in their hands,” head coach Mark Richt said.
It was only two seasons ago that Richt had to overhaul his defensive staff after the Bulldogs were on the wrong end of some gaudy scores. Last year there was some improvement under new defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, but this year the team has made a bigger leap.
In fact, while Alabama and LSU might still be the standard for excellent defense, at least one Bulldogs player thinks his team’s defense deserves to be in that category.
“I feel like we’re better than Alabama,” junior safety Shawn Williams said. “I can say that. I feel like we’re the best defense in the SEC right now. We’ve just been overlooked, really. Flying under the radar.”
Senior cornerback Brandon Boykin was a bit more restrained.
“As far as being elite, like the Alabama and the LSUs, just speaking on the defensive side of the ball, I think that’s where we can be by the end of the season, or we’re working towards it now,” Boykin said. “We show signs of being dominant, but we don’t put people away all the time. In order to be elite like those guys, we’ve gotta do that every game.”
Offensive coordinator Mike Bobo answered “most definitely” when asked if having a top-notch defense had an effect on the play-calling.
“The bottom line is to win games, and you don’t want to give it away,” Bobo said. “You see it every week. You might do something, turn the ball over, or they get a defensive score.”
The other reason that Georgia might tend toward more ball control is that it can run the ball much better than last year. Starting tailback Isaiah Crowell is averaging 4.9 yards per attempt, and backup Carlton Thomas is averaging 5.1.
And while the passing game has been solid, ranking third in the SEC, the offensive line has been prone to giving up sacks, and Murray has been picked off more than last year.
“You do tend to want to help them by chewing as much clock as possible,” Richt said. “If the other team is having trouble scoring, you don’t want to take a whole lot of risks offensively that would allow them to score defensively That certainly is not what you want to do when your defense is playing well. ”
Richt and Bobo specifically cited the fourth quarter of the Mississippi State game, when Murray’s third interception of the game was returned for a touchdown. It took a 24-3 blowout into a game with at least a little doubt.
“We probably could have kept running that clock and not scored and then people would be complaining that we didn’t score, but we would have won the game 24-3,” Bobo said.
So that could signal a bit more conservative play-calling from Georgia. Perhaps especially on Saturday at Vanderbilt, since Georgia’s leading receiver, Malcolm Mitchell, will be out with a hamstring injury.
Still, Murray didn’t sound like he was planning on becoming a game-manager who just hands the ball off to Crowell.
“We want to put points on the board,” Murray said. “Just because we have a great defense -- I mean, we want to score. I mean, we feel like we have firepower on offense, we can go out there and make plays, put 30 or 40 points out there every game.”
But this year, the Bulldogs probably don’t have to do that.