Still plenty to prove for Georgia's defense

October, 29, 2008
10/29/08
4:09
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low

Georgia defensive coordinator Willie Martinez describes his defense as a "scratch and claw group."

And that's been good enough for the Bulldogs to claw their way to No. 6 in the BCS standings and stay in both the SEC and national championship races.

 
 AP Photo/Bill Haber
 Darryl Gamble took two interceptions back for touchdowns last week against LSU.

Will it be good enough to beat a Florida team that's putting up Xbox-like offensive numbers with the kind of speed you usually find at the Olympic track-and-field trials?

That's one of the key questions looming as the Bulldogs and Gators get set to play the most anticipated game in this rivalry in a long time.

"We've got talent at every position, and everybody understands their role," Martinez said. "But we're at our best when all 11 guys are playing. That's been our identity."

For much of this season, that identity has been hard to define.

The Bulldogs have looked dominant at times defensively. Then at other times, they've looked pretty average.

As Georgia coach Mark Richt correctly points out, the Bulldogs wouldn't have won at South Carolina had it not been for the defense, and they held Arizona State to 4 yards rushing and Tennessee to 1 yard on the ground. They're also starting to force some turnovers. Five of their 11 turnovers this season have come in the last two games, and linebacker Darryl Gamble took two interceptions back for touchdowns last week against LSU.

But against the best two offenses the Bulldogs have faced this season, it hasn't been pretty.

Alabama was up 31-0 before anybody could blink back on Sept. 27 and wound up winning 41-30. The Crimson Tide had three touchdown drives of 60 yards or longer in the first half and rolled up 286 yards of total offense by halftime, so it wasn't like the Bulldogs were coming onto the field with their backs to their own goal line.

"Definitely, we'd like to take back that first half against Alabama," Georgia junior cornerback Asher Allen said. "But from the second half on in that game, we've been playing well, getting turnovers, getting pressure on the quarterback and making teams one-dimensional.

"But we still have some things to prove out there. There were some games we needed to make some stops, and we were able to do that some. Being able to do that the whole game is the identity we want."

Last week in the 52-38 win over LSU, the Bulldogs had a hard time tackling LSU running back Charles Scott, who bulled his way to 144 yards rushing. The Tigers finished with 497 yards of total offense.

"We did not tackle well and were not happy about the way we played this last ballgame," Martinez said. "We gave up way too many big plays and can't have that, especially against the team we're getting ready to play. We had not been giving up those plays, but I'm sure the opponent had something to do with it."

In other words, Georgia really hadn't been tested defensively other than Alabama. Vanderbilt is ranked 115th nationally in total offense, Tennessee 112th, Arizona State 82nd and South Carolina 79th.

No, the real test comes this Saturday at Jacksonville Municipal Stadium.

The Gators have scored 152 points in their last three games, and with speedsters Jeffery Demps and Chris Rainey fully incorporated into the offense now, have riddled teams with big plays. In their last three games, the Gators have eight touchdown plays of 33 yards or longer.

While most people talk about dealing with Florida's spread formation and all the problems it creates for a defense, Martinez is more concerned about dealing with the Gators' speed.

"They do a good job with their formations and all the different plays they run," Martinez said. "When you add more speed to it, that just makes it more difficult. They have a good scheme, but a lot of it is their players. That's what makes you look like a really smart coach.

"They're doing a lot of the same things they've done in the past. They're just doing it with more speed at each position."

The Bulldogs should have more depth, at least at linebacker. Richt said senior middle linebacker Dannell Ellerbe has practiced this week and looks healthy enough to play some Saturday after missing the last three games with a sprained knee.

Above everything else, Martinez said the most important thing for his defense is not allowing Florida to get out of the gate quickly and build an early lead.

"If the game is close or they're ahead, they're different (offensively)," Martinez said. "We can't let things get away from us. We've got to start fast and finish fast. That's the key."

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