- David Ching, ESPN Staff Writer
ATHENS, Ga. -- Georgia’s defensive front five had some outstanding moments in last weekend’s opener against Buffalo, but their overall appraisal of their first effort featured a mix of good and bad.
“Just little things, small things, fundamentals, things we’ve been coached to do -- we just need to work on those things and tighten them up,” said defensive end Garrison Smith, who made six tackles in the win against Buffalo. “We had to get the rust off.”
The Bulldogs came into the season expecting to rank among the nation’s top defenses, with nine starters back from a bunch that ranked fifth nationally in total defense a year ago. That includes four returning starters up front in All-American Jarvis Jones, defensive ends Abry Jones and Cornelius Washington and nose guard John Jenkins -- three of whom (Jones, Jones and Jenkins) were preseason All-SEC honorees.
So when Buffalo strung together four scoring drives, including back-to-back possessions in the second quarter that cut Georgia’s halftime lead to 24-16, the Bulldogs’ fans were no doubt troubled by what they were watching. So were the Bulldogs themselves, as Bulls quarterback Alex Zordich too often had huge openings in which to run after fleeing the pocket.
Zordich gained 53 of his 83 rushing yards and tailback Branden Oliver had 89 of his 111 in the first half before the Bulldogs tightened up in the second half. The Bulldogs forced three-and-outs on four of Buffalo’s first five drives after halftime and allowed only 19 yards on the fifth, helping turn the game into a rout when it was anything but at intermission.
“We did a lot better in the second half -- way better than we did in the first half,” nose guard Kwame Geathers said. “I think if we can keep improving, we can do way better than we did last year.”
The defensive front was a key factor in Georgia’s second-half improvement and it will likely lead the way if the Bulldogs’ defense is as effective this season as it was in 2011.
Jarvis Jones once again was in All-America form against Buffalo, totaling eight tackles, 2.5 tackles for a loss, 1.5 sacks, six quarterback pressures and a forced fumble. Smith and Jenkins both had solid games, and Abry Jones and Washington pressured the pocket effectively at times. The key will be converting more of their sack opportunities, as too often they came within an eyelash of bringing Zordich down only to have him escape to keep a play alive.
With Missouri’s dangerous dual-threat quarterback James Franklin and his spread offense on deck this Saturday, the Bulldogs know they have a much smaller margin for error.
“We’ve just got to eliminate some of the small things that lead to big things -- maybe stepping into a gap or holding position on a block a certain amount of time,” defensive end Ray Drew said. “Those little things can lead to a long run or a pass or something that’s going to cost us yards.”
The Bulldogs took command once the defense pulled it together against Buffalo, scoring 21 unanswered points to push their lead to 45-16 before a late Bulls touchdown. Prior to that final scoring drive, Buffalo had accounted for just 19 yards on 18 plays after halftime -- production that more closely resembled what defensive coordinator Todd Grantham expected to allow.
Grantham gave his defensive front a passing grade for its 2012 debut, but said he expects more complete performances in the coming weeks.
“I thought those guys did a solid job,” Grantham said. “Like all positions, we’ve got things we’ve got to work on, but I thought they played with energy, they played stout at the point of attack and we’ll continue to work and make sure that we all improve as we move forward.”
Even so, the Bulldogs expect more from themselves than what they delivered against Buffalo. Jenkins said, “I didn’t really attack like I wanted to” when asked about his performance, and Jarvis Jones said, “I don’t know what was going on” when asked about the group’s early struggles against a Buffalo team that went 3-9 a season ago.
Overall, the defensive front accounted for three of the Bulldogs’ four tackles for a loss, both of their sacks and 12 of the 13 quarterback pressures, but they know that won’t cut it against tougher opponents like the Missouri club they will face this weekend.
“That one game don’t make us. I know what we have and I know what our abilities are,” Jarvis Jones told reporters after Tuesday’s practice. “I think we could have played a whole lot better. Everybody knows that. From recently, y’all know we’ve got the same line from last year, so y’all know we could have played a whole lot better. But I just think we played around for the longest and we should have just balled out from the get-go.”