Florida can’t exploit cracks in Georgia’s defense, but Tennessee can

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Georgia had an all-time great defense in 2021, so regression was inevitable this year. The talent drain made slippage even more likely. The Bulldogs had to replace five defensive starters who were selected in the first round of this year’s NFL draft. Kirby Smart’s recruiting means the decline has been a tiny slope.

But if the group has has a weakness, it’s allowing the occasional big play to opponents who otherwise have nothing going. It happened against Kent State and Missouri. It happened again against Florida on Saturday at TIAA Bank Field.

ExploreNo. 1 Georgia honors Dooley with hard-fought win over Florida

Xzavier Henderson’s 78-yard touchdown catch gave the Gators life when they appeared finished in the third quarter. The Bulldogs clamped down from there, as usual. It seems a bit silly to talk about explosive plays allowed when Georgia plays elite defense. But those lapses are why linebacker Jamon Dumas-Johnson didn’t seem as pleased as you’d expect after a 42-20 victory over UGA’s archrival.

“As a leader of this team, a leader of this defense, we have high expectations,” Dumas-Johnson said. “We failed to do that today.”

None of the big plays allowed by Georgia have resulted in a loss this season. But none of the opponents they’ve played so far can score like Tennessee. The Volunteers are coming to Samford Stadium on Saturday with their high-tempo, high-scoring offense.

Tennessee entered this weekend leading the nation in points per game. Quarterback Hendon Hooker ranked No. 1 in yards per attempt and No. 2 in passing efficiency. Wide receiver Jalin Hyatt scored five touchdowns in the victory over Alabama two weeks ago. The Vols averaged 8.1 yards per play in that game, the most allowed by Bama since 2013 vs. Texas A&M.

Tennessee is better able than Florida to exploit the few cracks in Georgia’s defense. Florida’s Anthony Richardson missed a few throws Saturday that fifth-year senior Hooker can make. Georgia shut down Florida’s strong running game. That will be harder to do against the Vols. Georgia also will have to account for Hooker connecting on throws to the outside and downfield.

The Bulldogs held the Vols to 10 points before garbage time while winning in Knoxville last year. But Georgia’s defense has taken a (small) step back, while Tennessee coach Josh Huepel’s offense is better.

“If they couldn’t throw it, you would say, ‘Well, they are one-dimensional,” Smart said of the Vols. “But they have kind of a perfect storm going for his offense. And when he has that, it’s really, really, really hard to stop.”

The Bulldogs have a good chance of doing it. They still play elite defense. Georgia shut down Florida’s capable offense for three quarters. The Gators entered the weekend ranked 21st nationally in ESPN analyst Bill Connelly’s metric (adjusted for opponent and tempo). Florida gained 451 yards against Utah, 595 yards at Tennessee and 395 yards vs. LSU.

ExplorePhotos from Georgia's win over Florida

Florida’s offense is fueled by a strong running game that includes Richardson as a threat. Georgia didn’t allow the Gators much room to run. Florida’s 371 yards of offense included only 74 yards rushing on 23 carries by its running backs. Richardson rarely had time to stand in the pocket and pass. He was throwing on the run most of the day.

It was a very good performance by Georgia’s defense. But the Bulldogs are trying to win another national championship. Allowing the Gators to get back in the game with that long touchdown doesn’t meet that standard.

“It always bothers us,” Bulldogs safety Christopher Smith said. “‘Explosives’ are a great indicator of winning or losing the game, so we never want to give up that at all.”

Florida connected on two of them. Justin Shorter’s 41-yard catch led to a field goal in the second quarter. The Gators didn’t do much else in the first half. They went three-and-out on their first four possessions. They finally gained a first down on their 15th play, after they were down 21-0.

Georgia 42, Florida 20

Florida trailed 28-3 at halftime. That deficit seemed impossible to overcome with the way Georgia’s defense was swarming.

Said Smart: “I don’t know that defensively we had played better in a half than we did that (first) half. Then the first drive in second half, we’ve never played that bad. It just snowballed on us.”

That 13-play scoring drive lasted more than five minutes. It might have ended with a turnover on downs if not for a penalty on Georgia for a late hit. The 15-yard penalty was Florida’s third longest gain of the day to that point. The Gators finished the drive with a rushing touchdown, only the second allowed by Georgia this season.

Georgia fumbled the ball away on the first play of its next possession. Florida kicked a field goal to trim the lead to 28-13. Georgia’s next drive ended with Bennett’s second interception. Time for the defense to bail out the Bulldogs again. Instead, a lapse in pass coverage allowed Henderson to run free for a touchdown down the right sideline.

Suddenly, Florida was down by only eight points with more than 18 minutes to play.

“It was a little mistake on the back end, but we were able to bounce back,” Smith said. “Great response.”

Georgia answered with what Smart called “the drive of the year, so far.” The Bulldogs needed only six plays to cover 78 yards. Georgia’s defense forced a turnover on downs on Florida’s next possession. The Bulldogs scored another TD on their next drive, followed by another turnover on downs by Florida. Georgia’s defense had righted itself.

That almost always happens. The Bulldogs ranked first in points allowed per game in 2021 and were second this season after seven games. Georgia’s 2021 defense was No. 1 in Connelly’s efficiency metric. Georgia’s 2022 defense ranked third before this week’s games.

Said Smart: “We’re probably not what we were defensively last year. But we play as a team, we play complementary football. We have to keep getting better. We’re not there. People want to put us there, but we’re not there.”

The Vols will show us where Georgia’s defense is at a year after it was so great.