ATHENS -- When yet another gut-wrenching game ended last week, Georgia defensive end Ray Drew turned to defensive coordinator Todd Grantham.
“Coach that was a great win, but that was too close,” Drew said.
“You got that right,” Grantham replied.
A couple of days later, the hosts on ESPN’s “Pardon The Interruption” brought up the Bulldogs.
“I love watching Georgia play,” Tony Kornheiser said.
“Cardiac Dogs,” PTI host Michael Wilbon exclaimed.
There’s not much reason to think this next one will be any different.
No. 25 Missouri is unbeaten and is putting up a lot of points, while No. 7 Georgia’s defense is struggling. And while the Tigers’ haven’t been great on defense, injuries have left the prolific Bulldogs offense in near-crisis mode.
Entering the season, this home game against Missouri looked like an easy one for Georgia. But now the Bulldogs will be content to escape with another cardiac victory, if that’s what it takes. Here are the issues that loom the largest in the matchup:
Can the defense make stops?
Georgia is giving up 32.2 points per game, some of it on special teams, and 403.8 yards per game. Some of that can be chalked up to the competition, but last week’s second-half struggles against Tennessee were discouraging.
There were expected to be growing pains for a young Georgia defense, but this week there were signs that the players were getting fed up with it. Sophomore outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins, who only has one sack after expecting to lead the team in that category, said players had discussed what happened last year, when then-senior safety Shawn Williams jump-started the defense with a midseason verbal lashing.
“We’re just at a point where it’s time for us to man up,” Jenkins said. “A couple of us have been talking about when Sly called everyone out. We just felt like this was the time we needed to get on our keys and focus on what we need to do for the long run.”
Focusing on Franklin
Emotion aside, this doesn’t set up as a good matchup for Georgia’s defense. It ranks 12th in the SEC in pass defense and 14th in third-down defense. Missouri ranks third in both pass offense and third-down conversions.
Missouri senior quarterback James Franklin is a big reason why. Franklin is fully healthy this year, after playing with the lingering effects of a shoulder injury last year.
“He’s a lot different player than he was as far as his determination, his mental toughness and his want to be successful, than he’s ever been,” Missouri head coach Gary Pinkel said.
Franklin is also a threat with his legs, having rushed for 278 yards this season. Last year Georgia made stopping Franklin’s running a focus of its defensive game plan, and it worked. But this year the question is whether the Bulldogs have too many other holes to plug.
Missouri has tall and athletic receivers, including sophomore Dorial Green-Beckham (the nation’s top recruit two years ago), and a multi-pronged rushing attack, with three tailbacks having rushed or at least 293 yards.
Overcoming offensive injuries
Barring a last-minute recovery, star tailback Todd Gurley will miss his second straight game with a sprained ankle. That leaves freshmen J.J. Green and Brendan Douglas, who have actually been pleasant surprises. Green had a strong game last week after Keith Marshall suffered a season-ending knee injury.
At receiver, the team still has experience with junior Chris Conley, senior Rantavious Wooten and senior walk-on Rhett McGowan. Freshman Reggie Davis, who has a 98-yard touchdown catch to his credit, should also move into a bigger role. It also doesn’t hurt to have a couple of good tight ends in Arthur Lynch and Jay Rome.
Missouri also isn’t exactly Alabama on defense. The Tigers actually rank lower than Georgia in team defense.
Still, it’s obvious that there will be little margin for error for quarterback Aaron Murray and his improved offensive line.
“We’re fortunate to have a fifth-year senior starting quarterback,” offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said. “We still have a lot of maturity on our offensive football team. We’ve gotta lean heavily on those guys, and that maturity has gotta come through.”
Georgia isn’t too happy with the noon kickoff, believing (with validity) that it will hurt the ability to have a full and raucous crowd at Sanford Stadium. That’s why head coach Mark Richt has been pleading for fans to get there early every chance he gets.
The upshot for Georgia is that Missouri’s record and ranking have likely gotten the Bulldogs’ attention. Couple that with the injuries on offense, and effort and focus shouldn’t be an issue.
“Games like this are where we see what kind of character a team has,” Conley said. “We see what these guys are really made of, and we see who the men are on this team.”