Georgia’s defense takes first step toward redemption

Georgia defensive lineman Jordan Davis hits Michigan quarterback Cade McNamara during the second half of the Orange Bowl NCAA College Football Playoff semifinal game, Friday, Dec. 31, 2021, in Miami Gardens, Fla. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

Credit: Lynne Sladky

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Georgia defensive lineman Jordan Davis hits Michigan quarterback Cade McNamara during the second half of the Orange Bowl NCAA College Football Playoff semifinal game, Friday, Dec. 31, 2021, in Miami Gardens, Fla. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

Credit: Lynne Sladky

Credit: Lynne Sladky

I understand why it’s tempting to downplay Georgia’s defensive demolition of Michigan on Friday night. The Wolverines don’t have an explosive passing game. Alabama does. The Crimson Tide used it to make Georgia’s defense look vulnerable for the first time all season. Shutting down the Wolverines doesn’t mean the Bulldogs will slow Bama in the rematch.

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I’m not among the doubters. Georgia’s defense didn’t earn redemption in the College Football Playoff semifinal. That will happen only if the Bulldogs stop Alabama in the national championship game. They couldn’t do it in the SEC Championship game. Alabama’s offense scored 34 points, with Bryce Young passing for 421 yards.

But Bulldogs defenders proved that game was an outlier. They came out frenzied and physical against Michigan. They suffocated the Wolverines for a 34-11 victory. Georgia’s defense has been great in 12 of 13 games. I like its chances to make amends for the one exception Jan. 10 in Indianapolis.

“This is one of the first weeks that no one was riding us thinking we was just going to destroy somebody,” Bulldogs linebacker Nakobe Dean said. “We always want to play with a chip on our shoulder, and I feel like that will be the same way we continue to play.”

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Members of the Georgia Bulldogs defense tackle Michigan Wolverines running back Hassan Haskins (25). (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Members of the Georgia Bulldogs defense tackle Michigan Wolverines running back Hassan Haskins (25). (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

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Members of the Georgia Bulldogs defense tackle Michigan Wolverines running back Hassan Haskins (25). (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

They made a convincing case for that in the Orange Bowl. It’s not as if Michigan offense is inept. The Wolverines were the No. 2 scoring offense in the Big Ten behind Ohio State. They hung 42 points on the Buckeyes to earn a bid to the conference title game. The Bulldogs made a very good offense look terrible, as was their custom before playing Bama.

Before falling behind 27-3, the Wolverines gained only 3.4 yards per play. They moved the ball a bit better after halftime, but Georgia bowed up each time they threatened to score. The outcome of four consecutive Michigan possessions: interception, lost fumble, turnover on downs and turnover on downs again.

The Wolverines couldn’t run the ball. They had to know it wasn’t happening after one play in the second quarter. Jordan Davis, Georgia’s 360-pound man in the middle, chased down tailback Blake Corum on an outside run and dropped him for a loss. Even Georgia’s big men are fast to the ball.

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Georgia Bulldogs defensive lineman Jordan Davis (99) pursues Michigan Wolverines running back Blake Corum (2) and tackles him for a loss in the second quarter. Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton / curtis.compton@ajc.com

Georgia Bulldogs defensive lineman Jordan Davis (99) pursues  Michigan Wolverines running back Blake Corum (2) and tackles him for a loss in the second quarter. Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton / curtis.compton@ajc.com

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Georgia Bulldogs defensive lineman Jordan Davis (99) pursues Michigan Wolverines running back Blake Corum (2) and tackles him for a loss in the second quarter. Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton / curtis.compton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton / curtis.compton@ajc.com

The Wolverines wanted to pass early. They couldn’t do it because the pocket kept collapsing around quarterback Cade McNamara. The Bulldogs sacked him four times. He had to get rid of the ball quickly on several other drop-backs because Georgia’s pass rushers were coming.

Michigan’s offensive line won an award as the nation’s best. It got pushed around by the SEC’s top defensive front.

“We just wanted to make sure we was dominant and physical up front,” Davis said. “We wanted to make sure we tested them.”

The Bulldogs did that to every team they’ve faced, including Bama. The Tide couldn’t get much on the ground in the SEC Championship game. Georgia got pressure against Young, but he slipped away to make plays. Georgia’s biggest problem in that game was getting beat with passes over the top.

The Wolverines had only one moment like that when it mattered. McNamara’s 42-yard pass to Roman Wilson put the Wolverines at Georgia’s 19-yard line in the second quarter. Michigan trailed 17-3. Georgia had scored on all three of its possessions. The Wolverines needed a touchdown.

They didn’t come close. On the next play, McNamara faked a handoff for an end-around to the right side. By the time McNamara got his head up to look for a target, Dean was sacking him on a blitz off the left side. If Dean hadn’t gotten there, teammate Nolan Smith was coming from the other side.

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Georgia Bulldogs linebacker Nakobe Dean (17) sacks Michigan Wolverines quarterback Cade McNamara (12) in the 2nd quarter of the 2021 College Football Playoff Semifinal between the Georgia Bulldogs and the Michigan Wolverines at the Orange Bowl at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens. Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton / curtis.compton@ajc.com

Georgia Bulldogs linebacker Nakobe Dean (17) sacks  Michigan Wolverines quarterback Cade McNamara (12) in the 2nd quarter of the 2021 College Football Playoff Semifinal between the Georgia Bulldogs and the Michigan Wolverines at the Orange Bowl at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens. Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton / curtis.compton@ajc.com

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Georgia Bulldogs linebacker Nakobe Dean (17) sacks Michigan Wolverines quarterback Cade McNamara (12) in the 2nd quarter of the 2021 College Football Playoff Semifinal between the Georgia Bulldogs and the Michigan Wolverines at the Orange Bowl at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens. Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton / curtis.compton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton / curtis.compton@ajc.com

The Wolverines also made it to Georgia’s side of the field on their first possession. The drive stalled with a turnover on downs at the 41-yard line. Smith tipped McNamara’s pass on third-and-1. McNamara took a short drop on fourth down but still had defenders his face when he passed.

This was how it was going to be for McNamara. It got only worse once the Wolverines fell far behind. They had to pass. That’s a bad situation any time. It’s especially perilous against Georgia.

The Bulldogs figure to have a much harder time slowing Alabama. But the Tide weren’t as sharp against Cincinnati on Friday in the Cotton Bowl.

Young had three TD passes but also a pick. He needed 28 pass attempts for 181 yards. After catching-and-running all over the Bulldogs, Tide wide receiver Jameson Williams had a long gain of 20 yards against Cincinnati. Bama’s other star receiver, John Metchie, was hurt in the SEC Championship game and won’t play in the rematch.

Georgia 34, Michigan 11

Alabama beat Cincinnati by wearing them out with the run. That’s a lot harder to do against Georgia. No one has done it this season. Alabama’s backs gained only 95 yards in the SEC title game.

The Tide beat Georgia by throwing over the top. That was the only real weakness for Georgia’s defense all season. Alabama was the first foe with a passing game good enough to consistently exploit it. It raised serious questions about a defense that had faced none to that point.

There’s only way for Georgia’s defenders to redeem themselves after that performance. They have to be a lot better in the rematch with the national championship at stake. I’m convinced they will be after seeing what they did to Michigan.