LEXINGTON, Ky. — Georgia is looking to get back to its winning ways after a week off when the No. 13 Bulldogs meet Kentucky tonight.
The Bulldogs (5-1, 3-1 Southeastern Conference) were routed 35-7 at South Carolina in their most recent game, a loss that made their quest to win the East Division tougher. The loss featured defensive breakdowns, an ongoing problem for the Bulldogs – Georgia has given up 89 points the past two games.
Lineup shuffles caused by the early season suspensions of several players partly explains Georgia’s breakdowns, though coach Mark Richt blames it more on miscommunication.
“Everybody has to be on the same page, and we made all the corrections we could make from what happened in the South Carolina game and really the entire season,” Richt said in a conference call. “We looked at the entire first six games and said what are the things that are causing these big plays, and most of it was communication issues on the back end. We tried to make those corrections.”
With everyone talking now, the next step is backing it up against the injury-plagued Wildcats (1-6, 0-4).
The Wildcats have lost five in a row and are coming off a rain-shortened 49-7 drubbing at Arkansas.
Injuries have forced them to use freshmen on both sides of the ball but especially on defense, where four rookies could start in the secondary against Bulldogs quarterback Aaron Murray.
“We’ve just got to be ready to make the plays based on coverages and who’s guarding who,” Murray said. “I don’t want to start talking trash. We’ve just got to be ready to go no matter what we see, no matter who we see.”
For Kentucky, that means generating more quarterback pressure, a tricky deal considering it has spent most of its time in coverage.
“I feel we’re pretty close” to having pressure, Wildcats senior defensive end Taylor Wyndham said. “Because we have a lot of young guys it makes it difficult sometimes but it’s also a good thing.
“In the first half against South Carolina, oh man, we shut ‘em out. But we didn’t come out the same way in the second half. We’ll play for good stretches. It’s just so close. You just got to be able to finish.”
The Bulldogs found themselves in trouble early against the Gamecocks on Sept. 29, trailing 21-0 behind several big plays including a 70-yard punt return for a touchdown. South Carolina gained 392 yards overall, leaving Georgia ninth in the SEC in total defense at 373.8 per game.
The Bulldogs’ main question is whether their marquee player will be available against Kentucky.
All-America junior outside linebacker Jarvis Jones (5.5 sacks) hasn’t practiced this week after injuring his ankle against South Carolina and looks doubtful. Freshman backup Jordan Jenkins is ready to go just in case.
And Georgia has others capable of filling the void.
Senior nose tackle John Jenkins is coming off a career-high, eight-tackle game against the Gamecocks. Sophomore linebacker Amarlo Herrera had a career-high 11 tackles in that game, and suggests that Georgia just needs to reclaim the defensive style that worked so well last season.
“We should never have had excuses for anything, no matter who was in or who was out,” Herrera said. “We’re ready to get back to the top defensive form we were in last year.”
The off week came at a good time for the Bulldogs, helping them get over the Gamecocks loss prepare for the stretch run. They’re 13-4 following an open date under Richt.
Playing a struggling Kentucky team could also help Georgia move forward.
Offensively, Kentucky has multiple purposes in wanting to establish the rush. The Wildcats haven’t broken 100 yards the past two games, which has pressured freshman quarterback Jalen Whitlow to throw; the combined results are 74 yards and one touchdown on 12 of 31 passing.
Besides taking some of the pressure off Whitlow, a decent ground game might ease the burden on a defense that has spent long stretches on the field. Opponents are keeping the ball nearly 34 minutes per game, 10 more than the Wildcats.
“We’ve got to establish the run, establish it early and try to take some pressure off” Whitlow, Kentucky coach Joker Phillips said.
Saturday’s homecoming game ends a demanding stretch for the Wildcats, who have faced four SEC opponents ranked 20th or higher. Their schedule is considered the nation’s toughest by the Anderson and Hester, Colley Matrix and Massey ratings.
Kentucky’s past seven opponents are a combined 37-7, with three still unbeaten and three having only one loss.
Georgia will face one of those unbeaten teams next week in Jacksonville in East-leading and No. 2 Florida. That’s why it’s important the Bulldogs make sure there’s no confusion on either side of the ball — starting at Kentucky.
“We’re ready to move forward,” Herrera said. “The off week provided us with an opportunity to improve on a lot of things, and a lot of people have been working to get better. We’re just ready to work hard.”