Turnovers take center stage for Bulldogs

ATHENS — Call it an ugly win or a gutsy one. Call the Georgia Bulldogs lucky or call them good. Chalk up the close calls as intense drama or fatally flawed performances.

The bottom line is, Georgia has three wins in its past three games, culminating with Saturday’s final-second 20-17 victory over Arizona State, but even head coach Mark Richt isn’t quite sure how to assess his team at this point, and the biggest concerns have all been self-inflicted wounds.

“I’d like to remove some of the drama if possible and just play a solid 60 minutes of football, but we just have not found a way to do that yet,” Richt said. “But that’s coaching, too. I’ve got to do a better job of getting these guys prepared. It’s not only what I might say before the game or at halftime. It’s what we demand of them throughout the week, and maybe we need to do a better job of that.”

Just how much more the coaches can do, however, is hard for Richt to say. Georgia now ranks 115th out of 120 FBS teams in turnover margin, despite Richt’s repeated warnings of just how costly giveaways can be.

Perhaps the problem then is that the turnovers haven’t had the effect expected. Despite giving up 12 turnovers this season compared with just three takeaways, Georgia has managed to overcome the miscues to still escape with wins.

It’s not a trend quarterback Joe Cox thinks can continue, but he’s also at a loss as to how to negate the problem.

“It’s crazy because we talk about it every week that we need to cut out turnovers and penalties,” Cox said. “It just seems to be something that happens anyway. It gets frustrating. I’m glad our defense bailed us out (against Arizona State). We left them in a couple tough spots.”

Georgia’s offense has repeatedly left the defense with short fields, and 14 of Arizona State’s 17 points Saturday came following Bulldogs turnovers, including the second interception return for a touchdown of the season thrown by Cox.

Overall this year, opponents have scored 54 points off Georgia’s 12 turnovers, which doesn’t include a safety by South Carolina following a special-teams miscue in which a snap sailed over the punter’s head and out of the back of the end zone.

The numbers would be even worse had A.J. Green not battled away a 37-yard field-goal attempt by Arizona State following Cox’s second interception of the second half, preserving a tie and eventually giving the Bulldogs a chance to emerge with a win.

“You’d like to think you’d progressed some in the last three weeks, but I almost feel like we’re like that record that gets stuck,” Richt said. “The same thing keeps happening over and over again, but the good news is we’ve been winning.”

It’s hard to pin the blame for the turnovers on one player or one position.

All three of Georgia’s primary tailbacks have given up the football this season, including two fumbles by Richard Samuel a week ago and another by Caleb King against the Sun Devils. Richt said King’s fumble came after center Ben Jones fell into him on a run, knocking the ball loose.

Georgia has twice turned the ball over on special teams, with Prince Miller mishandling a punt when he ran into one of his blockers against Arkansas, and Branden Smith allowing the ball to slip out on a kick return against South Carolina.

Even Green, Georgia’s Superman through the past three games, has fumbled away the football once.

“The problem is, if every one guy takes a turn, that’s a whole lot of turns,” Richt said of all the turnovers. “That’s a whole lot of issues. Hopefully the guys who have had the issues, it won’t happen again and we’ll get it narrowed down here.”

For all the fumbles, however, it’s Cox who has been Georgia’s biggest culprit. Through four games, Cox has turned the ball over six times, including five interceptions.

The senior quarterback threw two picks in the second half against Arizona State, both coming on the exact same play call. Cox said the Bulldogs ran the play just twice in the game, and Sun Devils safety Jarrell Holman intercepted Cox both times.

“Obviously I need to be smart about where I’m throwing it, and I don’t think I was on those two plays,” Cox said.

Of course, the final results thus far have more than made up for the occasional ugly plays during the game.

While figuring out whether Georgia is simply a good team with a nagging flaw or a flawed team with a lot of luck on its side remains a mystery to most observers, tight end Aron White said he’s focusing on the silver lining.

There’s something to be said for a team that can shrug off its own mistakes and rebound on its next opportunity. So while the true identity of Georgia’s team may not be known, White said there should be little doubt about the Bulldogs’ character.

“Last year, we might have gone in the ditch a little bit after turnovers,” White said. “This year, we’ve had some turnover issues early on, but we take it in stride and come out the next series with something to prove.”