"If we score, we may win. If they never score, we'll never lose."
Thus spoke former Georgia defensive coordinator, the late Erk Russell, perhaps alongside Bill Hartman, the most respected and well-loved assistant in Bulldog football history. You're likely familiar with the quote, you've probably seen it in DavetheDawg's signature. This was a mantra that inspired the stingy Junkyard Dawgs who helped carry the Georgia football program to great new heights during the Vince Dooley years (1964-88).
Well, ladies and gentlemen, times have changed a little bit as Georgia now stands dead last in the fourteen-team Southeastern Conference in scoring defense at 32.5 points per game, also allowing opponents a shabby 44.8-percent conversion rate on third down. The Dawgs also rank toward the bottom of the barrel, thirteenth to be exact, in passing yards allowed with 277 per game. One could argue that the only reason the Dawgs escaped the brutal month of September was because their offense is scoring 41.3 points per game, running for 209 yards and passing for 345.
So the Georgia defense is pretty bad right now and it's time to hit the panic button, right?
Well, I've been staring at that button for a while now and, while tempted, just can't seem to push it quite yet. Here's why:
Brutal August/September Schedule
For starters, Georgia faced
arguably the hardest opening slate of anyone in college football, going 2-1 against three top-ten teams in the first four games of the season. Georgia gave up their fair share of points to these three big boys on the block and even let one of the little guys hang around longer than they should.
- In the Clemson game, Georgia surrendered 38 points to an offense whose quarterback has thrown for 994 yards and nine touchdowns on the season thus far with a 64% completion percentage and whose star wide receiver already has 25 catches for 355 yards and two touchdowns to his credit. This team is also scoring 43 points per game at the moment. They scored less than that against Georgia, so that's a good thing, right?
- Against South Carolina, the Georgia defense was responsible for yielding 30 points and 454 yards against an offense that features the most underrated and under-appreciated quarterback in the SEC and a slightly-lesser version of Todd Gurley at tailback. Georgia's secondary looked particularly atrocious in this one. Thus far, however, this Gamecock defense is racking up 30 points and 482.2 yards per game. Again, their season average is equal to, or in excess of, the totals racked up by the visitors on September 7 in Sanford Stadium. We should be OK with this, shouldn't we?
- The North Texas Mean Green, the only non-top-ten team on the schedule through the first four games, put up 21 points in their visit to Athens two weeks ago, but only seven of those points can technically be charged to the defense. The Dawg D did allow an embarrassing 238 yards through the air, but only seven yards on the ground. It should also be noted that three of the four Mean Green players who ran with the ball ended the game with negative yardage. North Texas is averaging 29 points per game; Georgia allowed them 21 (the D only seven). The Mean Green is also racking up 277.8 passing yards a game; Georgia allowed them 238. Opposing defenses have allowed North Texas 132.3 on the ground. These guys only got seven on Georgia. That's progress, right?
- LSU rolled into Athens last week averaging 42.8 points and 473.8 yards a game. Georgia held them to 41 and 449, respectively. Like North Texas the week before, Zach Mettenberger's Bayou Bengals pretty much had their way with Georgia's secondary, but were held to minimal rushing yards (only 77, to be exact). Furthermore, the Dawg D got to Mettenberger on a few occasions, dropping him behind the line for a cumulative loss of 26 yards. Though Mettenberger slung the ball all over the field at will that afternoon, the Georgia defense stepped up when it had to and made the crucial stop on fourth down as the game clock wound down. Particular kudos go to star/strong safety Josh Harvey-Clemons, who racked up an amazing 15 tackles against LSU. Mett is going to pick apart many a defense this season, so we should just be satisfied with the win, shouldn't we?
They're Actually Stopping the Run
Let it be known that the same Georgia defense responsible for giving up more yards through the air than twelve other SEC squads currently ranks a solid sixth in the league in rushing yards, allowing only 126.8 yards per game. What was a major weakness of the Georgia defense last season and in 2011 is turning into a strength in 2013. I give a fair amount of credit to first-year defensive line coach Chris Wilson for this.
The longest run allowed in the North Texas and LSU games was one of only 16 yards. Under current coach Les Miles, a physical, overpowering running game has typically been LSU's bread and butter and we heard all last week about the invincible Jeremy Hill. Well, Hill and his Tiger teammates were held to only 77 yards on 36 carries. When was the last time you heard an opposing fan talk about Georgia winning the line of scrimmage?
I could get used to this via www2.pictures.zimbio.com
In addition to aiding in stopping the run, Coach Wilson's revolving door of defensive linemen has also greatly assisted in pressuring opposing quarterbacks. The Dawg D has already registered nine sacks, good for fourth in the league, and is bringing runners down behind the line on a pleasantly regular basis.
DL Chris Mayes bringing Mettenberger down behind the line via cdn1.sbnation.com
I love what I am seeing from the run defense as a whole and consider DL coach Chris Wilson a good hire. Though Georgia's defense might not be the prettiest on paper, there are some things to savor about this unit so far this season.
He's a keeper, ladies and gentlemen via i2.wp.com
It Seems Like the Younger Guys Are Getting It
It's no secret that Georgia's glaring weakness on defense right now lies in the secondary. Do I think this unit will continue to improve? I do. Georgia's pass defense has been less than serviceable so far, but let's keep it all in perspective. Damian Swann was the only returning starter in the secondary when the Dawgs lined up against Clemson to open the season back in August. Four of Georgia's defensive backs were playing high school ball a year ago. Georgia's green secondary also faced three of the best quarterbacks in the country in its first four games. This trial by fire should ultimately help Brendan Langley, Tray Matthews, Quincy Mauger and Shaq Wiggins develop as the season continues.
Each Bulldog defensive back has surrendered a significant amount of yards and has looked outright confused at times, but I applaud them for playing well enough against that September murders' row to help the team win three of the four games. On a side note, star/strong safety Josh Harvey-Clemons is showing signs of what made him such a sought-after recruit in 2012.
It might not seem like it, but things are getting better back there, folks, and I have every reason to believe that they will continue to do so.
I like what I see here via ww1.hdnux.com
So Where Do We Go from Here?
Saturday's game against Tennessee will present an interesting measuring stick of sorts for the rebuilding Georgia defense, especially for the secondary: the Vols rank dead last in the SEC in passing offense, with only 154 yards per game and no guaranteed starter at QB (even though smart money says that we will see Justin Worley under center on Saturday). Tennessee has also thrown eight interceptions already, by far the most in the SEC. If there's a conference game to expect good things from the Bulldog defensive backs, it's probably this one. If the Georgia secondary keeps the Tennessee receivers in check and registers a pick or at least a couple of pass breakups, it's all good. If the Vols throw for 200+ yards and a few scores, we might have a bit of a problem on our hands.
The Tennessee running game will present somewhat of a different challenge for Georgia's front seven as the Vols rank a respectable sixth (two spots ahead of Georgia, by the way) in the league in rushing with 215.4 yards per game. I still have flashbacks of Rajion Neal cutting through last year's D like a hot knife through butter so we know they can run the ball in Knoxville. Minimize the damage from Neal and friends, bring a few Vols down behind the line and make life miserable for whomever the quarterback will be on Saturday and I'll believe that the run defense is truly progressing.
How's he doing, folks? via cdn3.sbnation.com
We all knew that this year's defense, replacing countless seasoned starters now playing in the NFL, would be a little shaky as a unit coming out of the gate. And it has been. What encourages me through the first month of the season is that the defense has yielded its fair share of yards and points, but not the game, to three of their first four opponents. They have stepped up when called upon. We should be optimistic for the future based on that alone. The fight is back in the Dawg(s) and the experience that they lack can only come with more playing time, which they are now getting against a more winnable stretch of games.
On paper, the Georgia defense has drastically underperformed and is just flat-out bad. In reality, the Bulldog defenders are not only doing what they should be doing, but perhaps even getting better at doing so. The jury may still be out on the 2013 edition of Coach Grantham's Dawgs, but I see Saturday as a great indicator of where the unit is heading, so keep a close eye on the D's performance this Saturday in Knoxville. You might learn a thing or two.
What do you think? Is the defense already cause for concern? Is Coach Grantham earning that fat paycheck? Are you counting on drastic improvement now that the brutal first month of the season is over? What do you think about the run defense? The pass defense? Share your take in the comments below.