Youthful Georgia Bulldogs defense continues to struggle

Youthful Georgia Bulldogs defense continues to struggle

October 10th, 2013 by David Paschall in Sports - College

Georgia defenders Josh Harvey -Clemons (35), Shaq Wiggins (6) and Quincy Mauger (20) latch onto Tennessee wide receiver Jason Croom (18) Saturday at Neyland Stadium.

Photo by Dan Henry/Times Free Press.

ATHENS, Ga. - As the Georgia Bulldogs were giving up yards and points in victories last month over South Carolina and LSU, they were also discovering ways in which a youthful defense could build confidence.

Georgia used a goal-line stand midway through the fourth quarter to turn away the Gamecocks, and the Bulldogs stopped the Tigers on a fourth-and-10 in the final minute. In last week's 34-31 overtime win at Tennessee, however, the Bulldogs came away with no such stop to celebrate.

The Volunteers pounded the Bulldogs for 277 yards after halftime and seemed headed for a touchdown in overtime when Pig Howard fumbled through the end zone after a 7-yard run on second-and-goal.

"Tennessee went up and down the field on us, and we can't let that happen," Bulldogs outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins said. "We were excited we won, but at the same time, we knew we needed to fix something. That game shouldn't have been as close as it was, and we knew we had things to work on.

"It's a little bit frustrating, but we know we can fix it. We just need to fix it now. Pronto."

The No. 7 Bulldogs knew this season would be challenging from a defensive standpoint due to their inexperience and stiff early competition. Six true freshmen have made starts on a defense that ranks last in the Southeastern Conference in scoring (allowing 32.2 points per game) and third-down conversions (allowing a 44.0-percent rate).

Missouri, which is averaging 543.8 yards and 46.6 points per game, is not expected to provide much relief Saturday when the No. 25 Tigers visit Sanford Stadium.

"We're obviously a work in progress," Georgia coach Mark Richt said. "We're battling and we're fighting and we're winning as a team right now. We don't care about the stats. We don't even really care what everybody thinks about us right now.

"We're just lining up every day and trying to get the best plan and trying to execute it to the best of our abilities as coaches and players."

For the first time since 1905, Georgia has allowed 30 or more points in four of its first five games. Chaotic special teams have played a part in that, but the Bulldogs have yet to yield 400 yards a game over the course of the season and are allowing 403.8 right now.

Fourth-year defensive coordinator Todd Grantham also describes his unit as a work in progress.

"You go back to Saturday, and in the first half they ran 31 plays for 127 yards," Grantham said. "The North Texas game was a good game. We held LSU to 13 yards rushing in the first half, gave up some explosive plays in the middle but then came back and finished. We've just got to continue to work and be consistent for the entire game."

When asked if the wacky ending of the Tennessee game made it more difficult for his players to take away positives this week, Grantham said, "I think they realize that, but you show them the first half and the things they did well. They went for it three times on fourth down, and if we stop any of those, especially the two that were on our side, the game is probably over because we're probably going to have a two-possession score."

In its last two games against LSU and Tennessee, the Bulldogs have allowed 17 third-down conversions out of 32 opportunities. That 53.1-percent rate nearly matches the 53.8-percent rate Missouri's offense has enjoyed this season.

Tennessee converted seven third-down opportunities last Saturday and three fourth-down chances.

"We were stopping them on third down, but it was fourth-and-1 and fourth-and-2," safety Josh Harvey-Clemons said. "We had a penalty one time that gave them a fourth-and-1. We stopped them on third down, but we've still got to get off the field.

"Those long drives can take a toll on a defense, especially in an SEC game."

The need for Georgia's defense to improve this week is magnified by the rash of injuries to a Bulldogs offense that is averaging 39.8 points and 530.0 yards a game. Georgia had its lowest offensive output of the season in Knoxville, when tailback Todd Gurley was sidelined and backup tailback Keith Marshall was injured along with receivers Justin Scott-Wesley and Michael Bennett.

Freshman safety Tray Matthews, who started the first four games before suffering a hamstring injury, is doubtful for Saturday.

"The goal is to win and move on," Richt said, "and that's kind of what we've been doing after game one. Hopefully we can continue to do that."

Odds and ends

Richt said after Wednesday's two-hour practice that Gurley remains doubtful for Saturday. ... Richt said Bennett has a "really good shot" of returning for the Nov. 2 game against Florida.

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524.