Bulldogs Beat

Analysis: Georgia’s run defense made rainy conditions work in their favor against Kentucky

Most people hate being outside in the rain, and rightfully so. There’s not much appeal in being drenched in water with the risk of getting a bit dirty. If you’re a football player, then you might crave it.

Georgia faced those elements Saturday evening as buckets of rain dropped on the Sanford Stadium turf with winds swirling above. For an offensive playmaker, it’s brutal due to an inability to effectively complete passes or ensure ball security. Those defenders, however, see it as their greatest luxury.

So, when Kentucky made its trip to Athens and the Bulldogs saw a lot of rain, they wanted to take advantage and play in the mud like it was a little-league football game.

Ideal situation, ideal result for Georgia — a 21-0 verdict over the Wildcats for the sixth win of the season.

Most of the defenders smiled when reflecting upon the elements. They played in them during their high-school days, and loved it. Cornerback Eric Stokes remembers playing at a field that was muddy from the evening prior. Linebacker Monty Rice remembers being in the thick of a downpour on a Friday night at James Clemens High School in a rivalry game against Gadsden City (Ala.).

“I think we had a shutout that game, too,” Rice said.

From the moment it took the field, Georgia’s defense showed a fondness for the circumstances. Kentucky started Lynn Bowden — a midseason All-American candidate at wide receiver — as its quarterback. Georgia knew that a passing game would be difficult to muster in the weather, but also having a converted quarterback try to complete throws consistently seemed tough.

Georgia prides its defense in stopping the run. It sold out on it against Kentucky’s offense. Bowden struggled to find consistent running room — aside from the occasional 10- or 11-yard run that allowed him to collect 99 rushing yards on 17 carries. In comparison, Bowden recorded 196 yards and two touchdowns in a win over Arkansas on Oct. 12.

“Every time we go out there, we don’t want to give up any yards,” Stokes said. “No yards. No completions. No nothing. That’s always the goal.”

Kentucky struggled to find answers as neither offense scored during an uneventful half of play. Two of the Wildcats’ second-quarter drives displayed that:

  • Drive 1: Bowden rush for no gain, Bowden rush for three yards, Bowden pass incomplete to wide receiver Ahmad Wagner.

  • Drive 2: Bowden sacked for a loss of three yards, Bowden rush for eight yards, Bowden incomplete to wide receiver Keaton Upshaw.

“You always like a quarterback who can scramble so you can get a shot on him,” linebacker Tae Crowder said.

Georgia inside linebacker Tae Crowder (30) during the Bulldogs’ game against Kentucky on Dooley Field at Sanford Stadium in Athens, Ga., on Saturday, Oct. 19, 2019. Chamberlain Smith Georgia Sports Communications

With eliminating Bowden’s rushing abilities, Georgia made Kentucky a one-dimensional offense. The Wildcats had to pass, but were without the services of two actual quarterbacks in Terry Wilson (out for season) and Sawyer Smith (said to be available, but didn’t play due to conditions). Georgia’s defensive backs didn’t have much work in the passing game as Bowden finished 2 of 15 for 17 yards — not much of a downgrade from Jake Fromm’s 35-yard total, but Georgia also ran for 235 yards and three scores.

Bowden didn’t complete a pass until the fourth quarter, and Kentucky had a chance to win in the second half without a completion. That’s another reminder of how unique Saturday’s contest was.

“We had to key in on him,” Rice said. “He had to use his arm to beat us, not his legs.”

After stagnating Kentucky’s offense for three quarters, Georgia’s defense went to work on turnovers. It didn’t force one in the loss to South Carolina, and some players took a -4 turnover margin personally. Georgia found itself in a position where flipping field position was necessary in order to be victorious.

On a third-and-4 play, safety J.R. Reed stripped possession from Bowden and junior Richard LeCounte scooped the recovery. Georgia’s offense scored on a four-play drive after the turnover. LeCounte’s play served as a turning point (Rice reminded reporters that “you saw what turnovers meant last week”) as the Bulldogs’ built momentum after scoring a drive prior after a 15-yard shanked punt from Kentucky’s Max Duffy.

Georgia’s shutout effort of an SEC foe proved once more that its defense has become formidable (dare one say elite?). In regards to run defense, the statistics back the claim.

Georgia concedes an average of 85.71 rushing yards per game, which is fifth-best nationally and is the best mark in the conference. The Bulldogs have yet to allow a rushing touchdown through seven games. No other team can claim it has allowed fewer than two, and no SEC team has granted fewer than three (Alabama).

Overall, Georgia allows 10.6 points per game, which ranks fourth nationally and tops in the SEC.

“You’re always trying to set the golden standard,” head coach Kirby Smart said. “Whether it’s how many first downs you give up, red area attempts or three-and-outs. … I think our kids realize they are aspiring for excellence, not perfection. We have high targets and try to hit them.”

Those philosophies are backed by goal-setting. Smart is detailed in how he runs his program, and everything is predicated upon expectations. His quality-control staffers analyze a 17-page book each week when scouting an opponent, analytics come into play and his players are given a list of objectives in the meeting room each week.

Some of the goals are lofty, so not all of them are attainable. They’re used offensively, too, with intentions centered around explosive plays and run efficiency, but they’re resulting in more success defensively. Georgia hasn’t yet met seven of its 10 defensive goals for a week, and it didn’t do so last season either. Against Kentucky, a majority were checked off.

As told by Rice and outside linebacker Azeez Ojulari, here’s a look at the defensive whiteboard:

  • Hold the opponent to 13 points or less

  • Hold the opponent to 3.2 yards per rush

  • Create over 20% havoc

  • Limit explosive plays

  • Average 4.5 yards per passing down

  • Obviously, win the game

Rain or shine, Georgia’s defense is proving its status with depth and game-changing plays. It shone brightest under Saturday’s elements, but the Bulldogs expect the same elite-level production each week.

There’s no other option.

“We all think we’re the best defense,” Stokes said. “We have to go in every week and prove it.”

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Brandon Sudge has covered Georgia athletics as a correspondent for The Telegraph since 2016. He focuses on telling the deeper story within football, basketball, gymnastics and other sports. You can follow Brandon on Twitter at @brandonsudge.