Dawgs' defense was constructed for foes like Alabama. Will it pay off?
Georgia linebacker Channing Tindall’s sack on the final play of the Bulldogs’ victory over Tennessee on Saturday was one of those plays that meant nothing but everything.
The outcome, of course, was well in hand by then. But it was indicative of the mentality the Dawgs’ defense has attempted to adopt.
“The atmosphere that’s created on defense here is we’re not letting them score,'” coach Kirby Smart said. “We hold everybody accountable.”
It was on full display in the second half against the Volunteers. And if holding No. 14 Tennessee’s offense to 71 yards and no points over the final 30 minutes means Georgia’s ballyhooed stoppers are hitting their stride, they couldn’t have picked a better time.
Not with Alabama welcoming UGA to Tuscaloosa this Saturday for a matchup of No. 2 and 3 teams and the SEC’s only undefeated programs left in this COVID-shortened season.
“We’ve got a bunch of different guys that are just really good football players,” said linebacker Monty Rice, who had a sack, strip and score Saturday. “It’s a big team effort.”
Last season, defensive coordinator Dan Lanning affectionately referred to Georgia’s defense as “the no-name defense.”
It’s hard to call it nameless anymore.
Through 3 games, the Bulldogs have given up an FBS-low 236.7 yards per outing. (Only Houston technically ranks higher, but the Cougars just played their first game Thursday against Tulane.)
Rice leads the group in tackles with 18. Safety Richard LeCounte and cornerback Eric Stokes are tied atop the roster with 2 interceptions apiece. Azeez Ojulari’s 3 sacks tie him for 15th nationally, and his 5 tackles for loss have him knotted at 15th.
Defensive linemen Jordan Davis, Malik Herring and Devonte Wyatt don’t stuff the stat sheet in Georgia’s 3-3-5 scheme, but they’re not only controlling gaps. They’re suffocating them, opening things up for Rice, Ojulari and company.
Those are just some of the names becoming household status under Lanning, one of the game’s elite young minds.
It was Lanning and Smart’s adjustments that allowed the Bulldogs to recover from an even first half against a stout Vols offensive line Saturday.
“We’ve got a team that adjusts well,” Smart said. “When somebody’s giving us trouble with something, we’ve got answers.”
Said Rice: “It’s a can’t-flinch mentality.”
Matchups like this one with Alabama are why the University of Georgia has invested millions and millions of dollars into becoming a top-notch recruiting operation. The Dawgs’ past 4 classes have ranked 3rd or better in the 247Sports Composite.
Can it pan out this year? For a program vying for its first national title since 1980, the truest test yet comes Saturday at 8 p.m. ET on CBS.
Georgia’s players left Sanford Stadium just in time to watch Alabama roll up 723 yards of offense at Ole Miss on Saturday night. Running back Najee Harris and quarterback Mac Jones both look like Heisman candidates, receivers DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle could be Pro Bowlers someday, and the Tide’s offensive line has been as consistent as it is deep.
Georgia’s defense finished 2019 atop FBS in scoring defense. With the bulk of its talent returning, those close to the program thought this could be one of the best units in school history.
Are they there yet? Former Nick Saban protégée Smart would say absolutely not. And Rice, when asked if this group was the best in the country this season, deferred entirely.
“That’s not really for me to decide,” the senior said. “That’s for y’all to decide. That’s why y’all are media. But we just continue to play hard. I don’t really get into politics and all that because politics are crooked. I’ll let y’all politic on that.
“When we give up big plays and don’t play as well, it’s going to be going the other way.”
That was the case for part of the first half Saturday as Tennessee hit a couple of big passes and took a 21-17 lead into halftime. Ojulari said the defense has acknowledged it must evolve from a second-half team to a “4-quarter team.”
The current juncture in the schedule demands it.
“We feed off of each other’s energy,” Ojulari said. “Once somebody makes a big play … it just gets everyone going.”