The Georgia Bulldogs have played two FBS opponents this season. Vanderbilt scored only two field goals against them in the first game and Arkansas State didn’t score at all Saturday at Sanford Stadium. Those teams had the ball for a combined 23 possessions and made it inside Georgia’s 20-yard line three times -- and Arkansas State didn’t make it that far until Georgia was up by nine touchdowns.
Those are impressive numbers no matter the opponents. But Georgia’s defenders were more focused on a different one after the 55-0 victory.
“I know for a fact the ‘havoc’ is about to go up now,” said Georgia cornerback Eric Stokes, beaming.
He’s talking about havoc plays: sacks, tackles for loss, forced fumbles, interceptions and pass breakups. The total is posted on the wall of Georgia’s defensive meeting room. Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart has been talking about havoc plays since spring. So far defense has been creating them at a rate much higher than his previous four seasons.
Georgia created 20 havoc plays against Arkansas State: eight pass breakups, seven tackles for loss, four sacks and Lewis Cine’s interception at the goal line. That fourth-quarter pick preserved Georgia’s first shutout of an FBS foe since it won 41-0 at Tennessee in 2017.
Georgia has made 47 havoc plays in three games. Before the season Smart said the Bulldogs should create them on 20 percent of snaps. They’ve done it on nearly 25 percent of plays.
The competition stiffens with Notre Dame coming to Athens next weekend. The Fighting Irish will have to deal an aggressive Georgia defense that’s attacking the quarterback, ball carriers and the ball. The Bulldogs are rapidly adding numbers to that havoc board.
“It’s on the wall,” Bulldogs linebacker Tae Crowder said. “We definitely focus on it during the week. Try to create as many havoc plays as we can (in practice) then when we come to the game, it’s something we do. It’s natural.”
It hasn’t been that way for Smart’s Georgia teams. The Bulldogs almost always are sound on defense. Opponents don’t often gash them for long runs or throw over them. Georgia makes them work for what they get.
But the Bulldogs haven’t been disruptive during Smart’s tenure. Their havoc rates from 2015-18 were 15.6 percent, 15.9 percent, 16.9 percent and 15.6 percent. Per Football Outsiders, which filters out garbage time, Georgia’s FBS ranks in havoc rate those seasons were 71st, 59th, 47th and 73rd.
The step back last season is related to a change in approach by Smart. The Bulldogs played a conservative style of defense to protect a thin secondary. One benefit to that approach: Georgia allowed just 32 plays of 20-plus yards allowed. One drawback was that the Bulldogs didn’t create much havoc.
Georgia’s secondary is deeper this season. Now the Bulldogs are creating more havoc. They still aren’t allowing big plays while making more of the disruptive ones. Safety J.R. Reed said Georgia’s coaches are dialing up more pressure.
“I think we’ve been able to mix it up, be a little more aggressive,” he said. “And we’ve been preaching different things like havoc.”
Georgia preaches it, practices it and then produces it. It didn’t take long for Arkansas State to see it.
The Red Wolves got the ball first. On their first play quarterback Logan Bonner passed to Kirk Merritt on the perimeter. He tried to find room along the sideline, but defensive backs Mark Webb Tyson Campbell cut him off. Merritt had to go out of bounds and take a 3-yard loss.
Two plays later Tyler Clark sacked Merritt for a loss of eight yards. Quay Walker sacked Merritt on the second play of the next Arkansas State drive. That’s how the day would for the visitors.
“There definitely was a lot of pressure,” Arkansas state center Jacob Still said.
It came from everywhere. Georgia’s linebackers had two of the four sacks. Bulldogs defensive backs collected two of the seven tackles for loss.
Now the Bulldogs will have to do it against better foes, beginning with the Irish. Their offense erupted in 2018 once quarterback Ian Book took over as the starter. Book didn’t have to do much during Notre Dame’s opening victory at Louisville because good defense and efficient running was enough. Then Book had a big game Saturday against New Mexico.
There will be more tests for Georgia’s defense this season. Missouri has former Clemson quarterback Kelly Bryant. Florida still seems to have issues with its offensive line and QB Felipe Franks is out with an injury, but the Gators have time to figure things out before Nov. 2.
And if the Bulldogs make the SEC Championship game, which is what they expect, they’ll likely see Alabama. Defensive lapses figured heavily in Georgia’s consecutive losses to Alabama. There was second-and-26 in the 2017 national championship game. The next season the Crimson Tide scored TDs on three of their last four possessions to come back and win the SEC title.
That’s back when Georgia’s defense wasn’t creating much havoc. Those days appear to be over.
“We are just trying to do anything to create havoc,” Stokes said. “It means a lot of us. We’ve just been trying to be more violent and more aggressive with everything.”
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