ATHENS, Ga. – The cracks in the foundation of Georgia’s Southeastern Conference championship bid have been showing for weeks. The pending Florida showdown only enhances the visibility upon further inspection.
Mark Richt spoke to the media Tuesday with a voice hoarse and weakened by a heated chewing out of his special teams. With it he had to address one of his best players calling out his defense as “soft.”
“That’s how he felt about it, so he has a right to say it,” Richt said of senior safety Shawn Williams’ scathing rebuke of his fellow defenders days after getting pushed around by an inferior Kentucky offense.
“We’re playing too soft as a defense,” Williams said Monday night after practice, naming a couple names in the process. “That goes for the D-line, linebackers, corners, safeties, everybody. We’re just not playing with the same attitude we were last year.”
It was the kind of public undressing that can divide a locker room and turn teammates on each other instead of focusing on facing the No. 3 team in the nation in an annual passion play. How Georgia reacts to its own in-house critique will determine the fate of its entire season. The timing of his rant might be catastrophic or cathartic, depending on how Saturday goes in Jacksonville, Fla.
“This is the most important game on our schedule right now,” said senior cornerback Sanders Commings, a former Westside star. “It’s pretty much the brawl for it all. The winner of this game will control its own destiny for the last four games. I’m glad Shawn made those statements before the Florida game because it would have been too late if he made them after it.”
Even third-down linebacker Christian Robinson – who was one of the players Williams specifically pointed a finger at – stood by his critic despite his irritation with the blame thrown his way.
“No football player wants to hear they’re soft. That’s not the way I go about it,” Robinson said. “I’m going to stick by my teammate. We were soft. We have a lot of area to get better.”
There is no doubt that Georgia’s defense has been softer than its schedule through the first seven games of the season. Even weaker opponents have enjoyed too much success – particularly running the ball – against a senior-laden Bulldog unit that returned nine starters from one of the toughest defenses in the nation a year ago.
Georgia currently ranks 47th in total defense (367.4 yards per game), 72nd against the run (167.9) and 50th in scoring defense (24.1 ppg) – categories it ranked among the top 23 in a year ago.
Williams was merely stating the obvious when he said he might “have to take somebody’s helmet off and slap them and say, ‘What’s going on?’ We’re not playing with any emotion right now. Period.”
“I definitely think that was needed,” Commings said. “It was going to come sooner or later from either a player or coach. We played better last year. With everyone back it really doesn’t make any sense why we shouldn’t be a top-five defense in the country.”
Richt might have preferred Williams keep his outburst inside the locker room, but he doesn’t disagree with the larger point his leading tackler made.
“We want to play championship defense, there’s no doubt about that,” Richt said. “Part of that is being able to stop the run or at least slow it down and force people into some situations where they’ve got to throw the football and force them into situations where they can’t just comfortably do what they do. Whatever
they do, we have to find out what they do and make them do something different, and we just haven’t been able to do that enough. So that’s been frustrating for everybody.”
That’s just a diplomatic way of saying that something has to change on Saturday if the Bulldogs hope to defeat an undefeated Florida team that runs the ball well (216 yards per game) and doesn’t make mistakes (four turnovers all season). A repeat of the one-sided South Carolina fiasco could happen if Georgia lets the Gators assume ground control.
So perhaps the wake-up call coming from a teammate rather than the coaches, media or fans is just what the Bulldogs needed to hear.
“I think it’ll turn positive no matter what,” Robinson said. “Whether people think that’s what was needed or we just come together and say we haven’t gotten it done – either one of those will be the reason why it’ll be positive or not.
“We have to go to practice today and we have to practice together. I’m pretty sure there’s not one person that’s beat any opponent by themselves. If we’re gonna beat Florida and make this the game that everyone remembers for their senior season, it’s going to take 11 guys in every phase of the game showing up.”
Georgia is blessed to be in this position at all. Despite getting utterly exposed in the 35-7 defeat to the Gamecocks, the Bulldogs have never taken a snap without their own fate in their hands.
By the time they kicked off against Kentucky on Saturday night, South Carolina had logged two losses in the interim and put all of the stakes in the SEC East on Saturday’s “cocktail party.”
“For some losses, we’re in the position we want to be,” quarterback Aaron Murray said. “To be playing one game – obviously we have a couple games after this – to be able to put ourselves in the situation to play in Atlanta, I think any of us would have jumped on this equation in a heartbeat. So we’re excited for this opportunity.”
The opportunity is only what Georgia makes of it. And unless the defense buries any hard feelings, sheds its soft side and stands together, the opportunity will be wasted on them.