- David Ching, ESPN Staff Writer
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ATHENS, Ga. -- Todd Grantham took great pleasure in reminding reporters how many college football analysts picked against Georgia in last Saturday's game at Missouri based upon the absence of four suspended defensive starters.
And Georgia's defensive coordinator was not the only Bulldog who carried a chip on his shoulder after several experts, including ESPN's Kirk Herbstreit and Desmond Howard, picked Missouri to win in large part because they did not believe defensive replacements like safety Connor Norman and cornerbacks Devin Bowman and Malcolm Mitchell could adequately do their jobs.
"Particularly, I was proud of the guys who had to step in and play for other people," Grantham said Saturday after Georgia defeated the Tigers 41-20, scoring the game's last 24 points. "There's a lot of pundits out there who feel like they know what our players learn and how our players can play, but I feel like those guys proved everybody wrong today and stepped up and performed and helped us to a victory."
Sophomore linebacker Amarlo Herrera, who started in place of suspended star Alec Ogletree, was also angered by what he viewed as disrespect toward his teammates and his defense, and he carried that sentiment into the game.
"That was the last thing I listened to on ESPN for that day," said Herrera, who totaled a career-high 10 tackles against Mizzou. "I listened to it and then I put my headphones on and got focused. That's why I kind of had a chip on my shoulder, too, because I heard that and what they were saying about the guys who were playing -- especially what they said about Connor -- and it made me put a chip on my shoulder because I know the work ethic Connor has."
The analysts were not entirely incorrect, as it was by no means a perfect day for the replacements.
Missouri quarterback James Franklin caught Bowman looking into the backfield and hit L'Damian Washington behind him for a 69-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter -- which ESPN color analyst Matt Millen described as "a huge mistake" by Bowman -- although both of Georgia's safeties broke outside to assist in coverage and left the middle of the field vulnerable.
Norman nearly surrendered a Hail Mary touchdown pass on the final play of the first half, but the ball sailed through the hands of Missouri receiver Marcus Lucas and fell harmlessly to the turf. And the Tigers seemed to target Mitchell -- a first-time starter after missing the opener against Buffalo with a sprained ankle -- to moderate success.
"I do think they were targeting me early on, but later on when they figured out I could move a little bit, I think they stopped," said Mitchell, who finished with six tackles and two pass breakups.
But Grantham also pointed out that Bowman's physical play against Mizzou's receivers forced multiple incomplete passes and how Mitchell improved as the game progressed. Plus, Herrera and sophomore cornerback Damian Swann -- playing an increased role while Sanders Commings was suspended for the first two games -- gave steady performances.
"I talked to Alec," Herrera said. "He knew what I could do and I talked to him about everything. I get his views on stuff and I tried to play like him a little bit, to see what he sees so I could have some of the instincts he has."
In doing so, Herrera and the other defensive fill-ins helped Georgia take control late in the game, just after Missouri's offense seemed to build momentum. But after the Tigers kicked a field goal to take a 20-17 lead with 2:39 left in the third quarter, Georgia got two takeaways from outside linebacker Jarvis Jones -- an interception that gave the Bulldogs possession at the Missouri 1-yard line and a forced fumble that gave the Bulldogs the ball at the Tigers' 5 -- stopped Missouri on fourth down twice and forced one punt.
"I thought the guys rose to the occasion," Georgia coach Mark Richt said. "The guys that stepped in and played played well and as a team, as a defense, I thought we did a super job of handling the offense we just don't see very often."
They did it by making adjustments to their traditional scheme in order to defend Missouri's wide-open spread offense. The Bulldogs trotted out some of those changes in the opener against Buffalo -- and it didn't always look pretty in Georgia's 45-23 win -- but Grantham believes it made a difference when the quality of competition improved against Missouri.
"Really, we've actually played this way for two weeks," Grantham said. "We kind of played a little bit of the stuff we were going to do against these guys last week to get them used to it. I felt like we needed the extra prep and didn't always match up. But I think in the end it allowed us to play better today."
Grantham and Richt still refused to say whether Ogletree and All-America free safety Bacarri Rambo will return from suspension for Saturday's game against the Florida Atlantic Owls, but it is a certainty that Commings and outside linebacker Chase Vasser's suspensions are complete.
Commings has played cornerback and safety for Grantham, so he can easily fit into either spot.
"As we get ready for this game, we'll make sure he can play either one of those to help us when needed," Grantham said.
While the presence of Commings and Vasser in the lineup will help, the Georgia defense won't be back to full strength until Rambo and Ogletree -- two of its best players -- return.
Grantham's defense certainly did not operate with the same efficiency as it might have with the four suspended players available, but it was good enough to stop one of the most talented offenses it will face all season -- at the game's most crucial junctures. That deserves another mention, Grantham said, particularly because conventional wisdom dictated that Georgia's fill-ins would not be good enough to slow down the Tigers.
"You play to win the game, and the guys that are in there, you expect them to do their job and play and execute," Grantham said. "And that's what they did."
The Bulldogs have not been able to field their best defenders because of suspensions, but defensive coordinator Todd Grantham is quick to point out that the pundits were wrong about what UGA's "fill-ins" could do against a tough Missouri offense.