ATHENS, Ga. -- Although they had a difficult time stopping Boise State quarterback Kellen Moore and South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore the first two weeks of the season, Georgia's defenders had success on third down.
The Broncos and Gamecocks combined to convert 8 of 26 third-down opportunities, and those could be the top two offenses the Bulldogs face all season.
"Even though we started off the year with two losses, we still did pretty good on third down against two really good third-down offenses," junior defensive end Abry Jones said, "so I think we're starting to feel it right now as far as seeing what we're capable of. When you have a defense that was as bad as we were last year on third down and to come back this year and do so great, it lets us know that we can get off the field on third down.
"We know we can. We know what to do."
The Bulldogs since have allowed Coastal Carolina and Ole Miss a paltry six combined third-down conversions on 30 attempts. They enter Saturday's game against visiting Mississippi State ranked fifth nationally and second in the SEC behind Florida in third-down defense, allowing a 25 percent conversion rate.
Last season, when Mississippi State, Kentucky, Auburn and Georgia Tech each converted more than half of its third downs against Georgia, the Bulldogs' 42 percent yield rate ranked last in the league.
"I think it's a combination of everything," second-year defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said of the drastic improvement. "We've played well on first down, which allows you to create second downs in your advantage, which can create third-and-longs. We've been more consistent in not giving up explosive plays, and our players have done a good job of understanding each third-down situation."
That understanding began in the offseason when head coach Mark Richt visited with Atlanta Falcons coach Mike Smith and learned that the Bulldogs were not practicing enough third-down situations. So when August arrived, they worked on more third-and-short (1 or 2 yards), third-and-middle (3-6 yards) and third-and-long (7 or more yards) settings.
"When you see those situations and study the film, it helps you understand what an offense is about to do," Jones said. "The preparation we had in fall camp is helping us right now."
Said Richt: "Our third downs are so much better than they were a year ago, and that's been big."
Mississippi State is ninth in the SEC in third-down offense, converting 38.7 percent of its opportunities. MSU converted 46 percent last year, when the Bulldogs culminated a 9-4 season with a Gator Bowl rout of Michigan.
MSU coach Dan Mullen is concerned with his team's slide so far in third-down offense, adding that it's one of the most prominent statistics his staff monitors.
One stat Richt has tracked is time of possession, where his Bulldogs rank third in the SEC at 32:27 a game. He wasn't expecting Georgia to fare overly well in that category because of its no-huddle offense, but the defense's success on third down has resulted in more offensive plays and possessions.
Can Grantham's defense keep that 25 percent conversion rate going all season?
"I don't know," Grantham said. "I just want to get them off the field. We'll see. Let's hope."
Redshirt freshman running back Ken Malcome, who indicated to Richt on Wednesday that he planned to transfer, requested a return to the team Thursday and was granted that request.