ATHENS, Ga. — With an ailing offense, Georgia’s defense couldn’t afford to be the team’s weak point on Saturday.
Georgia was already down a few key offensive starters going into Saturday’s matchup with Missouri, causing the defensive questions that have lingered ever since the season-opener at Clemson to resurface.
“There’s still room for improvement,” defensive end Ray Drew said. “Not at any particular position, but as a whole; offense and defense, special teams and all. We have to get better collectively as a group. That’s the biggest thing.”
There was potential for added pressure to be placed on Georgia’s defense in the absence of its offensive starters. In past games, Georgia’s offense has had to put up big numbers in order to leave with the win. However, Drew said the absence of those players had no effect on the game plan.
“You can only go out and control what you can control,” Drew said. “If you take care of your responsibility, it’s not a matter of ‘We were down here’ or ‘We were down there’ because we had all the excuses in the world, and if we wanted it we could have taken it, but we’re not and we’re going to own up to what happened and accept responsibility and try to get better.”
Georgia’s defensive problems started early when it allowed Missouri quarterback James Franklin to take a 5-yard quarterback scramble in for the Tigers’ first touchdown. Franklin’s performance wasn’t surprising, though. His 170 yards through the air and 43 on the ground were to be expected.
“When you have an experienced quarterback such as Franklin you have to do your best to try to contain him,” said Drew, who finished with two sacks. “I believe we did a fair job, but we could have done better.”
While Franklin was a dual threat to be dealt with, he wasn’t the only thing causing Georgia’s defense to have headaches all day. Georgia’s main issue was not getting Franklin and his offense off the field on third downs.
“That’s the main thing,” defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said. “That’s a big issue, obviously. You’ve got to be able to get on them and cover them and break the ball up and challenge the throw. To me third down is the number one priority to reduce the points.”
Missouri’s offense converted five of its 12 third down attempts in the 41-26 Tiger win. For Drew and his teammates, that stat may have been among the most frustrating.
“We got down to some third and long situations and there was a point in the game where they did a lot of converting of those third downs and it seemed like we just couldn’t get off the field,” Drew said. “I believe that’s our biggest thing. We’ve just got to put it all together.”
Putting it all together is the part Georgia coach Mark Richt focuses on most. He’s talked about the youth of his defense on many occasions, and says they’ll just have to get better in time. It’s the experience he’s paying attention to. The fact the defense is putting itself in these types of situations is a positive thing, in his opinion.
“Getting them to the third and medium and long is a good thing,” Richt said. “It’s a good sign.”
However, the way the defense responded in third down situations is something the unit has to work on. Grantham is set on doing that, but he too sees the defense progressing.
“I think that when you look at our team we’re a young team that does some good things,” Grantham said. “In the second half we played pretty good until there at the end. I think anytime you’ve got young guys there’s going to be a lapse or two or a thing that can extend a drive or create a seam or allow them to make some plays.”
Freshman Shaq Wiggins has started to see increased playing time over the past few games, and showed why he earned that role Saturday with four tackles and one pass deflection. Wiggins has been around the game long enough to know a defense has to capitalize anytime it gets a chance to get off the
“We’ve been practicing hard and talking about third down conversions and how we have to finish the play,” Wiggins said. “We just have to keep going back to the drawing board and execute plays and listen to our coaches and just play ball.”
Grantham said he’s pleased with his defense’s effort despite giving up 375 yards and 41 points in the loss.
“I don’t see anything wrong with their effort,” Grantham said. “They keep competing and it’s more of a matter of execution and getting some experience.”
These coaches expect big things out of this defense, but those things don’t happen over a span of three months.
“I believe we’re going to keep getting better,” Richt said. “I believe we’re going to have the type of defense people are proud of, but it takes time.”