- David Ching, ESPN Staff Writer
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ATHENS, Ga. -- Winning is the best salve in sports, so Georgia's defensive lapses aren't as painful as they would have been if the Bulldogs had lost to South Carolina on Saturday and entered their bye week with an 0-2 record.
That alone is a relief for the young defenders who allowed 34 points and 460.5 yards per game against Clemson and South Carolina, surrendering 6.7 yards per play to the two highly ranked opponents.
“It definitely would have stunk. We probably would have been in full pads every day, hitting,” outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins said of the bye-week practices. “It wouldn't have been a fun environment in Athens for these next two weeks.”
The members of Todd Grantham's defense realize that their shoddy tackling would have been the reason for the extra hitting, just as it was the reason they practiced in full pads twice last week leading up to the South Carolina game. They are simply nowhere near where they need to be if Georgia is to remain in the national championship conversation through the rest of the season.
The Bulldogs' offense has mostly bailed them out thus far, but there have been too many missed tackles and busted coverages preventing Georgia's defense from even being considered competent to this point.
“We've still got some things to fix,” Jenkins said. “There were still some moments where some guys didn't know what to do. It still wasn't as much as it was last week, but we're just a defense that's coming along and we've just got to fix some small things. I know that's getting repetitive, but I feel like this week was really something that we needed as a defense.”
South Carolina finished with 454 yards of total offense and actually averaged more yards per play than did Georgia -- 7.4 to 7.1 -- but there were a couple of bright spots for the Bulldogs in the second half.
For starters, Amarlo Herrera continued his difference-making play at inside linebacker. A week after notching 12 tackles against Clemson, Herrera made another 12 stops -- none bigger than when he met Gamecocks running back Mike Davis at the goal line on a fourth-down option run and forced a turnover on downs.
“They just came out in a formation that we knew and [South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw] checked, so I kind of knew by the alignment what play they were going to run,” Herrera said. “So I just ran to the running back.”
Herrera also tracked down Shaw from behind in the third quarter and forced a fumble that Josh Harvey-Clemons recovered at Georgia's 25-yard line.
Because of those two giveaways, the Gamecocks mustered just six points in the second half on Saturday, despite generating 221 yards of offense and averaging 7.9 yards per play in the half.
Some of those yards played out in ugly fashion for the Bulldogs, such as when Davis broke a 75-yard run deep into Georgia territory, setting up a 3-yard touchdown run where he ran straight through tackle attempts by Herrera, Ramik Wilson, Harvey-Clemons and John Taylor. Or when Nick Jones twice burned freshman cornerback Brendan Langley for touchdown catches in the second quarter.
“It's not easy to play corner in this league, or any league for that matter, in college football,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “You're going to get challenged, especially if you're a rookie. And he got challenged. He got beat once or twice, but he hung in there.”
Certainly some of Georgia's early problems were to be expected. With a big group of inexperienced players taking over for 12 major contributors -- most notably NFL first-round picks Jarvis Jones and Alec Ogletree -- from the 2012 defense, naturally there have been some growing pains.
Langley is a true freshman who lined up against All-American Sammy Watkins and an array of other talented Clemson receivers in his first college game. Other new starters like Leonard Floyd, Harvey-Clemons, Sterling Bailey, Wilson and Tray Matthews intrigue the coaches with their talent, but sometimes frustrate them by not performing as consistently as they'd like.
“We're young and we're learning,” Harvey-Clemons said. “A lot of us -- like me and Corey [Moore] -- this is our first time playing, so once we get together and get some games under us and get that chemistry going, I feel like there will be a lot of trouble for offenses to come."
The open date comes at a good time for the Bulldogs (1-1), allowing them to regroup from as tough a first two weeks as Georgia has ever faced in program history. With a week off followed by a visit from North Texas (1-1) before LSU (2-0) comes to Athens on Sept. 28, Grantham and company can use the rocky first two games as a teaching tool in a low-pressure environment before life gets difficult again.
LSU has diversified its offense this season and will present a bigger challenge than its run-heavy attacks of the past. And Tennessee's and Missouri's offenses will likely try to spread the field and tear holes in Georgia's defensive scheme, as well.
In short, this is a nice break, but the Bulldogs must be better prepared to be on the defensive soon. They know it as well as anyone.
“We find a way to make a play, make a turnover, keep grinding,” Grantham said. “I think that I saw some improvement over last week. I thought our front guys were physically stout at the line of scrimmage. I think we've got to do a better job on the edges in the run game. We've just got to keep working and if we do that, we'll be fine.”