They escaped a killer first month of the season intact, but the Bulldogs had plenty of close calls along the way.
Most would look to a defense that allows 32.5 points per game — good for last in the Southeastern Conference and 93rd nationally — as the primary cause. After all, excluding a strong outing against North Texas the unit has given up at least 6.14 yards per offensive play, which ranks better only than a porous Texas A&M defense in the SEC.
Yet No. 6 Georgia (3-1, 2-0 SEC) has excelled in both stopping the run (allowing 3.55 yards per carry) and at putting pressure on the quarterback (nine sacks and 19 “quarterback hurries” through four games). The apparent issue with the defense, then, naturally seems to be a secondary that gives up 8.3 yards per passing attempt — also last in the SEC.
It’s a trend the Bulldogs know they must end if the winning ways are to continue in Athens — even with a winnable SEC East schedule on the horizon.
“We still gave up 41 points, so somewhere down the line it’s going to catch up to us if we continue to give up points like that,” freshman cornerback Brendan Langley said.
To be fair, the apparent struggles are at least partially, if not mostly, attributable to the wealth of offensive talent Georgia has seen in just its first four contests.
LSU signal-caller Zach Mettenberger has thrown 13 touchdowns to just one interception. His top targets — Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham — have both already cracked 500 yards receiving and seem safe bets to excel at the next level. South Carolina rushing menace Mike Davis is averaging a whopping 7.15 yards per carry. Dynamic Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd remains a considerable Heisman Trophy candidate.
“That was definitely a first, second-round quarterback. Those were definitely NFL receivers,” Langley said of Mettenberger, Landry and Beckham. “Just use it as a learning experience. Make the changes to the mistakes we made and move onto the next game.”
Nevertheless, improvement remains a goal. Near the top of the list on what could be in for a closer look during practice this week: Georgia’s performance on third down.
Opponents are converting on third down 44.83 percent of the time against the Bulldogs, and this was perhaps no more evident than last weekend, when the Tigers moved the chains 10 out of 15 times. That includes long pass completed over the middle on third-and-22.
The players concede that improved pre-snap communication could result in fewer long passing plays in those situations.
“We have to start learning the signals,” said freshman Quincy Mauger, who spent time at free safety when the Bulldogs ran plays out of their nickel package.
“In the secondary, if you know it go ahead and call it out. We’ve got older guys like [Damian] Swann and Corey Moore who usually call it. But don’t wait for it, jump on it so we can get it, especially against those high-powered, fast-paced offenses,” Langley said.
But it's not all gloom and doom.
As is well-known by now, Georgia’s secondary is comprised almost entirely of underclassmen, and the unit has shown flashes of brilliance at times.
Safety Tray Matthews made an excellent play on the ball when he intercepted North Texas quarterback Derek Thompson. Freshman corner Shaq Wiggins saw increased playing last weekend.
Perhaps most importantly, sophomore safety Josh Harvey-Clemons led the team in tackles with 15 against LSU, including three for loss plus a pass break-up.
“I’m adjusting to [strong safety] a lot better than I thought. Landry was the best receiver I went against this year. I feel like I did an alright job against him. I still have a lot of work to do on my coverage skills,” Harvey-Clemons said.
“He played excellent out there. Definitely wasn’t scared of anything. Came downhill when he was supposed to, made great plays,” Mauger said.
And Mauger, who saw his share of the field last weekend, says he has grown more comfortable with the scheme after a slew of tough matchups.
“I’m adjusting to it a lot better than I thought,” he said. “Just being able to rep it and being in the film room, you really get the hang of it.”
Through all the uncertainty the future tends to hold, one thing’s for sure: Georgia’s youngest unit remains firm in believing that age is just a number.
“We don’t have a freshman mindset. Being young doesn’t have anything to do with it,” Langley said.