UGA defense better get its head right for Michigan

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Let’s look at the Georgia defense in terms of something even more furious than football.

For the bulk of 2021, the Georgia defense was Mike Tyson in his prime. The irresistible force. A wrecking ball among snow globes. You wondered in preparation for fight night, did Tyson’s opponents spar or just practice falling down?

Eventually along came Evander Holyfield. Or, in the case of the Georgia defense, Alabama. In both instances, here was a foe completely unimpressed by the bully act, one who knew that if you landed your own considerable first punch, the tough guy just might melt. And down goes Tyson, down goes Georgia.

After watching the fighter he used to train lose the first time to Holyfield, Kevin Rooney noted, “Tyson’s used to guys falling down. When Holyfield didn’t fall down, Tyson gave up.”

Now we spin forward and ask: Does the Georgia defense get back up?

Having a veneer of invincibility peeled away can be its own kind of painful Brazilian wax. The Tide did a rather thorough job of it in the SEC Championship Game, putting up 41 points and 421 passing yards on the Bulldogs. Thus does Georgia face the challenge of getting itself back to the version nobody messed with.

For better than three weeks, this proud unit has lived with the memory of Bryce Young carving it up like a Cornish game hen while working on fixes in advance of Friday’s playoff Orange Bowl semifinal with Michigan. There is both psychic and technical repair work to be done.

That the Alabama loss wasn’t a knockout at least has been of some comfort to Georgia. They live to play again and prove that conference championship an outlier.

“The fact that we had a hiccup doesn’t affect what we want to do going forward,” said Dan Lanning, whose last outing as Georgia’s defensive coordinator didn’t disqualify him from the Oregon head job. “Luckily for us every single one of our goals stand in front of us. There are four teams in the nation that get to play now, and I think we recognize the opportunity in front of us and we want to go take advantage of it.”

Added linebacker Nakobe Dean during Monday’s Orange Bowl Zoom presser, “That’s been the refocus of the mindset: We have a huge opportunity to do something that hasn’t been done in a long time.”

It’s important that this defense still believes itself to be world-beaters in order to return to playing at that level. The care and feeding of that attitude is vital. Can’t have any doubt eating away at the pillars of this team. Doubt, what doubt, wondered defensive back Chris Smith? “We’re focused on a new opponent, focused on Michigan, focused on being able to get a win and move on to the next level of our season,” he said.

It’s a little unfair that after a full season spent dominating the SEC and leading college football in fewest points allowed, this defense should hear nothing else but questions about its lone ugly performance. But it will keep hearing about that, like some Lady Gaga song stuck in its head, until doing something to reframe the questions and knock that tune from between its ears.

You don’t think Tyson got tired of hearing about Buster Douglas? When dominance flinches, that’s the story.

The Bulldogs are telling themselves what went wrong against Alabama can be remedied in plenty of time for Michigan. As for curing the type of coverage breakdowns that plagued them against ‘Bama, safety Lewis Cine pointed Monday to a renewed emphasis of fundamentals as a quick fix. Things like, “tracking the ball at the highest point, tackling because in bowl games there are a lot of missed tackles, making sure we communicate from the d-linemen to linebackers to the DBs,” he said. Fans might be satisfied with a defender just being in the general vicinity of a receiver.

Alabama’s offensive line came in for some unusual criticism this season, yet it held the Bulldogs D without a sack. Let it be noted that Michigan’s offensive line just got named winner of the Joe Moore Award as the best in the land. It led the nation in giving up the fewest tackles for a loss (2.08 a game) and the third fewest quarterback sacks (.77 a game).

The Bulldogs are facing another team with a big punch. Michigan’s forte is power, but it also led the country in plays of 50 yards or more.

And to help the boxing analogies along just a little bit more, here came Michigan offensive coordinator Josh Gattis.

“Let’s talk about a heavyweight matchup,” he said Monday.

“It’s going to be a train wreck inside. Two smash-mouth teams going against each other,” he said.

If Georgia is as tough as it believes itself to be, that should be an appealing kind of matchup. Like they say, styles make fights.