ATHENS, Ga. -- One of the key factors in Georgia’s defensive resurgence a year ago was the Bulldogs’ ability to pressure the passer -- and the opponent mistakes that came as a result.
That element was largely absent in the first half of this season for No. 11 Georgia (5-1, 3-1 SEC), and Bulldogs coach Mark Richt is looking for it to return down the stretch starting Saturday night at Kentucky (1-6, 0-4).
“We’re break even in turnover ratio, which isn’t awful, but we need to get more turnovers,” Richt said. “We need to protect the ball a little bit better. We’ve still got some things we need to clean up.”
Richt hit the nail on the head regarding that statistic, as Georgia has committed the exact same number of turnovers (10) as it has forced. That 50-50 turnover margin leaves the Bulldogs tied for 60th nationally and eighth in the SEC, a season after their turnover-happy defense helped them rank 26th nationally in that key statistic, behind only LSU and Alabama in the conference.
That 2011 Georgia defense tied for seventh nationally by creating 32 turnovers thanks to a more consistent pass rush (the Bulldogs’ total of 35 sacks trailed only LSU among SEC teams) and a ball-hawking secondary whose 20 interceptions were the most in the SEC and the fifth most in the country. But success in those two areas typically goes hand-in-hand and Georgia has not enjoyed much in either through six games.
Free safety Bacarri Rambo, a first-team All-American last year after leading the SEC with eight interceptions, attributed the issues to the widespread lineup shuffling that occurred throughout the first six games. He and inside linebacker Alec Ogletree were suspended the first four games and cornerback Sanders Commings and outside linebacker Chase Vasser were out for the first two. The defense has been plagued by gap-control errors and miscommunications as the reunited group tried to shake off the rust.
Rambo believes this group will better resemble its 2011 predecessors as it continues to play together down the stretch.
“We’ve just got to get that swagger back that we had last year,” Rambo said. “We had guys flying around, Jarvis [Jones] getting sacks, D-linemen crushing quarterbacks, everybody getting interceptions, [Ogletree] making plays, Mike [Gilliard]. Everybody was just making plays and having fun, so it’s just we’ve got to get our swag back and our mentality. That’s all it really is.
“And then correct the small things. The small things is what’s really hurting us. Once we correct those small things, everything else will start falling into place. We’ll be shutting people out, they’ll be struggling to get a single yard, we’ll get interceptions, sacks and all this and that.”
Of course, those players’ absences don’t entirely explain the Bulldogs’ less effective pass rush. Jones is third in the SEC with 5.5 sacks and freshman outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins has three, but everyone else on the team has contributed 1.5 sacks.
That includes half a sack combined between starting defensive linemen John Jenkins, Abry Jones and Cornelius Washington -- a disappointing figure from a group that expected to bolster the pass rush as seniors.
“Without a doubt, we do need to make improvement as far as sacks and a lot of pressure and stuff like that,” said John Jenkins, who has no sacks and is fourth on the team with six quarterback hurries. “I’m going to take a lot of responsibility for that and put that on myself because I feel like if I get a lot of pressure on the quarterback, then a lot of guys will be able to make more sacks.”
Both Joneses and Washington dealt with injuries in the first half of the season, so they hope the time off during last week’s bye will help. Jarvis Jones, who sprained an ankle in the second half of an Oct. 6 loss to South Carolina, was absent during the portion of Monday’s practice that was open to the media, but Richt said on his Sunday teleconference that he expects Jones to play against Kentucky.
Nonetheless, an improved pass rush would almost certainly help the Bulldogs solve their turnover trouble. And then it falls on the veteran members of the defense to trust their teammates to make the plays when they present themselves.
“We’re being too aggressive and not playing assignment football,” said cornerback Damian Swann, one of only two Bulldogs defensive backs with an interception this season. “With so many guys returning, I think a lot of guys want to be the ones to make the big play and they might not do their job that play, and that’s what causes the big plays. But it’s still correctable. It’s not too late.”
So if that combination returns -- if the Bulldogs play a more responsible brand of defense and if quarterbacks begin to feel more heat from Georgia’s front seven -- the 2011 swagger that Rambo described will almost certainly return to the Bulldogs’ defense.
That’s the way the senior safety envisions it, anyway.
“I’m ready just to start catching the interceptions and getting all these pick-sixes and celebrating with the team,” Rambo said. “I’m just ready for the team to get that joy and fun we had last year and just start flying around and just crushing people, making people wish they didn’t have to play us.”
Georgia’s defense ranks ninth in the SEC in turnovers gained after tying for first in the league last season. The Bulldogs have not been as effective at rushing the passer this season -- a factor that helped create many of those takeaways last season. Here is a recap of Georgia’s turnover and sack numbers and national ranking in each area since switching to a 3-4 defense in 2010:
2012: T66 (10)
2011: T7 (32)
2010: T30 (26)
2012: T60 (0.0)
2011: T26 (+0.5)
2010: 19 (+0.77)
2012: T78 (10 -- 1.67 per game)
2011: 24 (35 -- 2.5 pg)
2010: T71 (24 -- 1.85 pg)