ATHENS -- The numbers look bad. The trend line looks worse. Georgia’s ability to stop other teams from running the ball doesn’t appear to be heading in the right direction.
But those around the team say it’s not that clear cut.
“Our run defense it’s good,” defensive lineman Sterling Bailey said, thinking over his words for a moment. “We’ve just gotta eliminate the big plays. Take the big plays out of the picture, and our run defense is good. It’s really good.”
That’s a rosy assessment, but the Bulldogs say they’ve seen enough glimmers of hope to think they can yet be a stout defense against the run.
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Georgia’s rush defense currently ranks 102nd in the nation, out of 123 teams, yielding 211 rushing yards per game.
It’s not a volume issue. The Bulldogs are yielding 6.2 yards per rushing attempt. By comparison, Texas, which ranks 121st in the nation, is only yielding 6.0 yards per rush.
“We’ve got stuff to work on. It is what it is,” junior linebacker Amarlo Herrera said. “I mean, people don’t get a lot of yards every play. They get a couple of big plays and a lot of yards. Nobody don’t worry about that, they just go by that final number. So by that final number, we’ve got a lot to work on.”
But Herrera argues, as do his defensive teammates and coaches, that they improved from the Clemson game to the South Carolina game, and that the numbers are skewed by giving up big plays and going against mobile quarterbacks.
The latter point clearly has merit. Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd (42 yards and two touchdowns vs. Georgia) and South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw (75 rushing yards) are fast quarterbacks. The next quarterback Georgia will face, North Texas’ Derek Thompson, does have some running ability, but nowhere near what Boyd and Shaw can do. LSU’s Zach Mettenberger, whom Georgia faces next week, is a pure pocket passer.
So then it becomes all about stopping the tailback, and the results thus far have been mixed.
It is true that South Carolina tailback Mike Davis did most of his damage on three plays: He had carries of 21, 23 and 75 yards. Every other carry was 5 yards or fewer, and, in fact, nine of Davis’ 16 carries were 3 yards or less.
That was an improvement over how Georgia handled Clemson tailback Roderick McDowell in the opener. McDowell was more death by pinprick, with seven carries of at least 8 yards.
Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham and his players have blamed the big play problems basically on tackling problems and miscommunication. Both of those can be tied to the youth and inexperience on defense.
“It’s not only tackling, because I actually thought the guys tackled well in the (South Carolina) game. It’s also your angle to the ball,” Grantham said. “When you’re a young player, sometimes the speed of the game makes that angle get out of kilt a little bit. I think as guys get (used) to the speed of the game, understand the angle that they’ve gotta come, I think that’ll help them too.”
So what constitute these miscommunications? Outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins specified a major one on the Davis 75-yard run. Each side of the defense thought the blitz was coming from the other side. So instead of an edge rusher coming off the edge on the play, no one was there and Davis got free.
Of course, there was another breakdown on the play.
“Safety, or somebody should’ve come up,” Jenkins said. “Really, we shot ourselves in the foot that play. Really, we’ve been pretty stout against the run, minus the big plays they got.”
The issues against the run, whether they’re temporary or not, are just a continuation of last year.
The Bulldogs finished 77th nationally, and 12th in the SEC, yielding 182.14 yards per game. Yes, some of that was skewed by facing triple-option teams like Georgia Tech and Georgia Southern, which combined for 608 rushing yards against the Bulldogs. But remove those two games, and Georgia would still have averaged 161.9 rushing yards allowed, which would have ranked 63rd nationally, and 10th in the SEC.
Buffalo managed to rush for 199 yards (averaging 4.4 yards per rush) in last year’s season opener. Kentucky’s offense only averaged 138.8 rushing yards last year, but the Wildcats amassed 206 against Georgia.
Now here comes North Texas, a team that Georgia should handle easily. There will be those who write it off if the Bulldogs are stout against the run Saturday. But, considering last year, the Bulldogs say they would consider it a good sign.
“Yeah, it would say a lot,” Herrera said. “We’ve been working hard. We’ve been giving up a lot of yards, too. If we come out and stop the run and stop giving up a lot of yards, people will start taking heed on us.”