Georgia hasn’t tried to save up its top defensive performance of the season for its annual game in Jacksonville against its big rival to the south, but outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins remains ever optimistic that the Bulldogs can dig deep and find what’s been missing Saturday.
“I feel like against Florida we’re going to play the best defense we’ve ever played this whole season,” Jenkins said. “In the back of my mind, there’s a feeling in my gut that we’ll be able to play better and come back. ÉI feel like we’ve got the talent and the players to be a lights-out defense. We keep shooting ourselves in the foot.”
Kentucky, the league’s worst rushing team and 106th ranked nationally entering the game, ran for 206 yards against the Bulldogs in a 29-24 Georgia win Saturday.
That’s the same Wildcats team that ran for 84 yards or less against Mississippi State, Arkansas and Western Kentucky.
Florida rushed for just 89 yards Saturday in its 44-11 shellacking of South Carolina in which the Gamecocks loaded the box but the Gators relied on four red zone touchdown passes from Jeff Driskel.
“There’s always the threat of the pass, but if you can’t stop the run, you’re done,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “If you can’t slow it down, you’re done. The goal’s got to be to try to get anybody you play in a position where they get to third-and-medium, third-and-long situations to give you a chance to get off the field. The longer the yardage is on third down the better chance you have of getting a stop.”
Kentucky had success running on third-and-7 or longer when Georgia was geared up to stop the pass with two-safety looks.
“At that point, you’ve just got to defeat a block and make a play,” Richt said. “We didn’t do a good job of doing that.”
Said defensive coordinator Todd Grantham: “You’ve got to play more physical than we did in that situation no matter what coverage you’ve got called. You shouldn’t give up 10 yards on a run.”
It didn’t help that Georgia lost Abry Jones early in the first quarter because of an ankle injury. Grantham turned to the combination of nose guards John Jenkins and Kwame Geathers to fill the void. Jenkins slid to end and Geathers worked at the nose position.
Florida is third in the SEC in rushing, averaging 212.7 yards per game.
Mike Gillislee leads the Gators and is fifth in the conference in rushing at 93.2 yards per game. Georgia is 10th in the SEC in rushing defense after ranking 11th in the nation last year.
“Obviously we want to travel things through him on game day and see where we are,” Florida coach Will Muschamp said Monday. “If people are wanting to take that away, it’s going to open up some other opportunities.”
Against Vanderbilt, it opened up Driskel to rush for 177 yards and three touchdowns, including from 37 and 70 yards.
“They’re good and we’re going to have to find a way to match their physicalness, and they’re obviously playing with an attitude down at Florida,” Grantham said. “Will’s done a good job with them. We’ve got to match it.”
Georgia’s defensive players spoke of fixing communication issues during the bye week and of every player doing his job, but it didn’t fix the Bulldogs’ inability to stop the run like they would want.
Georgia has allowed 211.0 yards rushing the past three games to Tennessee, South Carolina and Kentucky, but that doesn’t mean opposing coaches don’t see talent when they turn on the film.
“They’ve got two really good playmakers – (Bacarri) Rambo and (Shawn) Williams are guys that really flash on the film,” Muschamp said. “They make a bunch of plays for them. Jarvis Jones is a guy that jumps out at you, been injured a little bit. We certainly expect to see him Saturday. (Kwame)
Geathers and (John) Jenkins inside are two guys you need to account for because of their size and girth inside. They’re going to be hard to move in the run game. I think top to bottom they’re a really talented group.”
Florida hasn’t turned the ball over much to opposing defenses this season.
The Gators have just four total, tied for second best in the nation.
“When you have a defense like we do, you don’t have to force anything,” Driskel said. “You don’t have to try to score on every play or anything like that.”
Georgia has gained 10 turnovers this year (tied for 79th nationally) after having 32 last year.
Grantham points out the Bulldogs have caused fumbles – opponents have 14 – but Georgia has recovered just five.
“There’s a lot of fumbles on the ground we didn’t get back,” linebacker Christian Robinson said last week. “Last year, we were on top of those quicker. That doesn’t’ mean we can’t do that now. We just have to take advantage of those opportunities and we haven’t up to this point.”