Georgia pass defense looks to tighten up against South Carolina

Georgia defensive backs Mark Webb (from left), Tyson Campbell, and Tyrique Stevenson celebrate stopping Mississippi State during the second half Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020, in Athens. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)
Georgia defensive backs Mark Webb (from left), Tyson Campbell, and Tyrique Stevenson celebrate stopping Mississippi State during the second half Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020, in Athens. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

ATHENS – Ask Kirby Smart what’s wrong with Georgia’s defense and his answer is, essentially, nothing.

To him, the reason that Mississippi State racked up 20 first downs and averaged 5:40 in possession time on four scoring drives of 71 or more yards boils down to it’s just what Mike Leach coached teams do.

So, no, Smart said Monday, he doesn’t expect South Carolina or anybody else to try to do what MSU did. Nobody does what those guys do.

“If you see the way defenses play Mississippi State, it doesn’t carry over,” Smart said Monday. “Most offensive coordinators we talk to, they don’t even put that game in their breakdown because it’s irrelevant since the defenses they’re watching are not the defenses they’re getting.”

Maybe so, but the Bulldogs’ defense certainly has shown a soft belly when it comes to certain kinds of plays. All year, No. 13 Georgia (5-2) has been susceptible to wheel routes and curl flats into the middle of the field by running backs, flankers and tight ends. Eighteen of State’s 41 receptions against the Bulldogs came on those plays, including 14 on first down.

To think that South Carolina (2-6) and interim coach Mike Bobo would not seek to do the same, or at least something similar, would be foolhardy. The two teams renew their 126-year-old rivalry Saturday in Columbia, S.C. (7:30 p.m, SECN).

“You probably have to ask Mike Bobo what he’s going to do, not me,” Smart said. “I don’t know.”

More relevant is what is Georgia going to do when it sees such plays, which is inevitable.

Saturday, the Bulldogs used a three-man front and dropped both linebackers and six defensive backs into various zone and cloud coverages to try to keep State’s receivers underneath. It worked, to an extent. Georgia got beaten deep only once – a 51-yard touchdown pass – and that was when they were in man coverage with nickelback Mark Webb trying to defend slotback Jaden Walley.

But for the majority of the game, MSU simply pounded the middle of the field with short passes underneath the middle linebackers’ drops into a zone shell. The Maroon Bulldogs did that 14 times on first down with an average gain 6.5 yards and just two incompletions.

“We just had to keep our composure and stay patient,” said linebacker Nakobe Dean, who led the Bulldogs with 12 tackles. “We know we have to execute better. But I do sort of put that on the shoulders of the linebackers and the leaders of the defense. We know we have to execute better and play better.”

Georgia players said they were prepared for what they saw this past Saturday.

“We felt as a team we worked hard on it; they were a good team and what-not,” Georgia linebacker Channing Tindall said. “But there’s always something we can work on and something we can get better at. That game we did have to play a little differently. But we’ve got to move on to the next game now and just focus on what this team has to offer.”

What the Gamecocks might “offer” is a big unknown at the moment. Not only are they under the direction of an interim head coach after Will Muschamp was fired two weeks ago, but Bobo appears to be in the midst of changing quarterbacks.

Quarterback Collin Hill, a transfer who followed Bobo to South Carolina from Colorado State, has started every game. But the 6-foot-4, 225-pound senior is more of a pocket passer. He was replaced in the second half of this past Saturday’s 17-10 loss to Missouri by freshman Luke Doty, who is a much more of mobile quarterback and brings more of a run threat into the Gamecocks’ attack.

Bobo hasn’t said which quarterback will start this week and probably won’t until Saturday. Indications are he might make a change

“We’ve got a plan, but I haven’t met with the quarterbacks yet,” Bobo said on a Sunday evening teleconference call with South Carolina reporters. I don’t want to talk about (the plan) yet until I talk about it with the kids.”

Bobo activated Connor Shaw, who previously was the Gamecocks’ director of player development, as quarterbacks coach. Shaw was, of course, a very mobile and successful quarterback himself at South Carolina just a few years back.

Such an offense wouldn’t seem to bear any resemblance to what Georgia just saw in from Mississippi State. With a new opponent comes new challenges, especially one as much in the throes of transition as is South Carolina.

Then, again, with the Bulldogs’ vulnerability so vividly on display, shouldn’t they expect more of the same?

“Our guys are completely comfortable breaking on the ball, you are just not going to stop those routes playing zone all the time,” Smart said. “They are going to throw them and catch them. The idea is to stop them before they get more than five (yards), and then hopefully bring up some third downs and get some batted balls.”

Georgia did manage three pass deflections, one of which was a dropped interception, but otherwise was unable to coax a turnover out of Mississippi State. The hope is to change that this weekend.

And while the Bulldogs struggled on Saturday -- and also against Alabama and Florida as well -- they remain overall a solid defense. Georgia’s giving up 21.3 points and 347.4 yards a game. Nationally, that rates 22nd and 29th, respectively.

“I don’t think it comes down to one certain part of the game,” senior outside linebacker Jermaine Johnson said. “I just think we fell short in a couple of areas. We’ve just got to come out this week and fix that.”

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