Georgia Bulldogs: Jordan Jenkins
“We're not talking about that yet,” the Georgia linebacker said after last Saturday's double-overtime win against Georgia Tech. “The season's not over yet. But when the season gets over, we'll start talking about those things and people will remember these [comebacks against Auburn and Georgia Tech].”
Step one in the evolution of a defense that loses only one senior starter -- defensive lineman Garrison Smith -- will be to put together complete games, not just decent halves. Against both Auburn and Georgia Tech, in particular, disastrous starts forced the Bulldogs to mount dramatic rallies in the game's waning possessions.
Wilson has a point. The starts were horrendous -- Auburn scored 27 points and Georgia Tech 20 before halftime -- but Georgia's defense was fairly solid in the second half of more than just those two dramatic comeback bids.
The Bulldogs were awful defensively for most of the first month of the season, with a 28-point second half by Tennessee in Game 5 perhaps ranking as the low point. But since then, Todd Grantham's defense has generally improved as the games progressed.
Since the Tennessee game, the Bulldogs allowed 10 second-half touchdowns in seven games -- half of those coming when opponent scoring started at the 50-yard line or closer because of errors by Georgia's offense or special teams. In the last month of the regular season, the Bulldogs allowed seven second-half points to both Georgia Tech and Kentucky, zero to Appalachian State and 16 to Auburn, although the final six came on a 73-yard Ricardo Louis touchdown catch for the game-winning score after Bulldogs safeties Josh Harvey-Clemons and Tray Matthews failed to bat down an off-target pass.
“We said it felt like it was like the Auburn game,” Herrera said of the Bulldogs' rally from a 20-0 deficit against Georgia Tech. “We just had to step up and we had to make plays real quick before it got ugly.”
The Tech game was already bordering on ugly before the Bulldogs salvaged it with their second-half rally. They argued afterward that the comeback was an example of their season-long persistence, even against long odds.
“Everybody knows about the tipped pass at Auburn and people wanted to know how we would bounce back off that. Well, we're 2-0 off that loss,” said sophomore cornerback Sheldon Dawson, who was victimized in coverage on several of Tech's biggest passes. “It's not about how you fall because you're going to fall in this game of football. You're going to fall many times. It's just you've got to get back up.
“Like for myself, to me I had a poor game, but how did I respond? I just tried to keep playing and show my teammates that I'm playing to get better on the next drive.”
The hope for Grantham and his staff is that the rocky moments that Dawson and many other youthful defenders experienced this season will become learning tools as they mature. The 2013 defense was simply not consistent enough, as its program-worst point (opponents averaged 29.4 ppg) and yardage (381.2 ypg) totals reflect, but there were occasional flashes of promise, as well.
He used the game-ending, fourth-down pass breakup to clinch the win against Georgia Tech as an example -- which easily could have been the third such key fourth-down stop by his defense had one of his safeties properly defended Auburn's last-gasp throw or had an official kept the flag in his pocket instead of incorrectly penalizing Wilson for targeting on a fourth-quarter pass breakup against Vanderbilt.
“That's the third fourth-down situation that we've had this year. We had one at Vandy, we had one at Auburn and we had one here,” Grantham said. “We've got a lot of young players on our team that will grow from it and they'll get confidence from it and we're going to develop them and move forward and win a bunch of games.”
The talent clearly exists for Grantham's projection to become reality. Harvey-Clemons, Matthews, outside linebackers Jordan Jenkins and Leonard Floyd, defensive end Ray Drew, Herrera and Wilson -- all of them should be back in 2014. If they and their defensive cohorts can perform with discipline that matches their physical capabilities, Georgia's defense could take a step forward next fall.
It's on Grantham and company to ensure that such progress occurs.
“Part of coaching and part of a program and part of being what we want to be, when it's going not the way you want it, you find a way to battle back,” Grantham said.
Let's look back over the season and recap some of the highs and lows:
MVP: This has to go to Murray, who broke multiple SEC career passing records as a senior. The Kentucky game started out as a senior-night tribute to the four-year starter, only to see it end in heartbreak when he suffered the knee injury in the second quarter that ended his season. He returned for his senior season to win a championship, although injuries and a shaky defense prevented Murray from reaching that goal. Nonetheless, his leadership prevented what could have become a major mess when many of Georgia's best offensive skill players were missing in the middle of the season.
Wildest finish: There's no shortage of competition in this category, as Saturday's Tech game was only the most recent Georgia game that was decided in the closing moments. That's what happens when seven of your 12 games are decided by a touchdown or less. But the winner here has to be the Auburn game, when the Bulldogs rallied from a 20-point, fourth-quarter deficit to take a 38-37 lead on Murray's fourth-down touchdown scramble with 1:49 remaining. Murray's heroics were for naught, however, as Nick Marshall hit Ricardo Louis on a deflected 73-yard touchdown pass with 25 seconds remaining, after the pass somehow slipped through Georgia's Josh Harvey-Clemons and Tray Matthews.
Surprise performer: Ramik Wilson. He was certainly not perfect -- particularly in pass coverage -- but Wilson became the SEC's tackles leader by playing nearly every important down and always hustling to the ball. He didn't make much of an impact in his first two seasons while rotating between inside and outside linebacker, but Wilson was a valuable contributor in leading the team with 128 tackles and tying with Jordan Jenkins for the team lead with 11 tackles for loss. He also made one of the Bulldogs' biggest defensive plays of the season when he deflected a Vad Lee pass in the second overtime against Georgia Tech, enabling Damian Swann to knock the ball away for the game-ending incompletion.
Worst defeat: The Auburn loss might have been more painful, but the 31-27 defeat at Vanderbilt was more avoidable. The Commodores outscored Georgia 17-0 in the fourth quarter -- a comeback expedited by a targeting flag on a fourth-quarter pass breakup by Wilson. The penalty was overturned upon review, but it still resulted in a first down and a 15-yard mark-off down to Georgia's 15-yard line, and eventually a Vandy touchdown. Georgia's ineptitude also contributed to the implosion -- including costly turnovers and an overall lack of aggression on offense -- which made it a particularly galling defeat.
Star in the making: Hutson Mason. Several players could figure in here -- Scott-Wesley, outside linebacker Leonard Floyd and safety Harvey-Clemons immediately come to mind -- but this will almost certainly be Mason's team next season. He overcame a shaky start against Tech to lead the Bulldogs back to an overtime win by completing 22 of 36 passes for 299 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. Let's keep in mind that it was the first start of his career, on the road, against arguably Georgia's biggest rival.
Biggest disappointment: We all knew the score when the season started. Georgia's defense lost almost every significant player from last season, minus defensive lineman Garrison Smith, inside linebacker Amarlo Herrera, outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins and cornerback Swann. A reasonable expectation was for the group to struggle against a challenging early schedule and make rapid improvements as the season progressed. Only that improvement never truly occurred with any consistency. Georgia's defense is better off now than it was when the season started, but there is too much talent on that side of the ball for the Bulldogs to keep making the bone-headed mistakes that plagued them for too much of the season.
Biggest relief: The overtime win against Tennessee kept the Bulldogs in the top 10 for another week, but the rally from an early 20-0 deficit against Georgia Tech will likely be the one more Georgia fans remember. Richt has dominated the Yellow Jackets throughout his tenure, but things didn't look promising when Lee was picking apart Georgia's secondary and Mason and the offense were struggling. A second-quarter touchdown drive helped them to settle down, and they went on to deliver an emotional comeback victory.
Best performance: Gurley's four-touchdown performance against Tech (or his early touchdowns against Florida in his return from a month-long absence) would certainly qualify here. But let's go with one of two showings -- and you can't lose with either one -- by Murray against South Carolina or LSU. Murray faced consistent attacks that he shrunk in the spotlight during his early years, but he largely eliminated those criticisms this season. He was nearly perfect against South Carolina, ending the Gamecocks' three-game series winning streak by going 17-for-23 for 309 yards and four touchdowns. Two games later, he went 20-for-34 for four touchdowns and one interception, plus a rushing score, against LSU and hit Scott-Wesley with the game-winning 25-yard touchdown pass with 1:47 remaining.
Smith's first substantial playing time actually came as the result of a questionable cut block that knocked DeAngelo Tyson out of Georgia's 2011 win over the Yellow Jackets. Smith, then a green sophomore, replaced Tyson in the lineup and recorded seven tackles and 1.5 tackles for a loss, earning SEC Co-Defensive Lineman of the Week honors in the process.
Defensive players don't like dealing with triple-option offenses like Georgia Tech (7-4) and Georgia Southern run, and specifically don't like having to keep their eyes out for pesky offensive linemen who consistently dive at their knees.
“It's just like being out on the streets: you've got to keep your head on a swivel and watch your surroundings,” Smith said. “Protect yourself at all times.”
Otherwise you could suffer Tyson's fate. Or even if you manage to protect yourself, you might fail to fill the proper gap and be the goat when the Yellow Jackets break a long run.
That was the issue for Florida's defense last weekend against Georgia Southern, when the Eagles ran 54 times for 429 yards and upset the Gators 26-20.
Afterward, Gators coach Will Muschamp admitted that the challenges presented in defending that scheme leveled the playing field for the FCS Eagles.
“That's why a lot of these schools run it -- because it takes talent out of the equation,” Muschamp told reporters this week. “A lot of talented guys don't like having somebody at their knees every snap, either.”
Georgia (7-4) has improved in each successive game against Georgia Tech's option since Todd Grantham became defensive coordinator in 2010. That first year, the Yellow Jackets ran 77 times for 411 yards and Georgia barely held on for a 42-34 win. The Bulldogs have won easily in each of the last two seasons, with Tech running 53 times for 243 yards in a 31-17 loss in 2011 and 67 times for 302 yards in last season's 42-10 defeat where their only touchdown drive came against reserves in the fourth quarter.
The problem for Georgia, however, is that only three regulars -- Smith, cornerback Damian Swann and outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins -- have played much against the Yellow Jackets' unique attack. It's entirely different from what Georgia's players and coaches see the rest of the season, so that real-time experience is valuable for all parties.
“But the bottom line, it gets down to players making plays, players executing, being where they need to be, playing with good pad level, playing physical and doing all the things you need to do to stop that kind of offense. Because it's really a team-oriented defense to play against, meaning you've got to take care of your assignment and trust someone's going to be somewhere else because if you don't do that, then you create a seam and that's when they get the explosive plays.”
Tech has largely been successful in that regard. As per usual under Coach Paul Johnson, the Yellow Jackets rank among the national leaders in rushing offense (fourth at 316.1 yards per game). They have scored 16 touchdowns -- 11 rushing, five passing -- that covered at least 20 yards and rushed for 200-plus yards in every game but one. In fact, they've rushed for more than 250 in all but their losses to Virginia Tech (129 yards) and BYU (237).
As long as Georgia's first-time starting quarterback Hutson Mason and his cohorts keep Georgia's high-scoring offense on track, the Bulldogs don't need to hold Tech to fewer than 200 rushing yards to win. If the Bulldogs keep grinding against Tech's deliberate attack and consistently arrive where they're supposed to be to make stops, they should survive.
“Everybody's got to do their job,” said Georgia linebacker Ramik Wilson, the SEC's leading tackler with 119 stops. “Me and Amarlo [Herrera], the inside-box guys, we've got to stop the dive. And we've got two outside linebackers that have got to stop the quarterback. And we've just got to make the plays. If we don't make the plays, we get gashed, so we've got to do our job and everything should be all right.”
That's easier said than done, however, as Muschamp can attest.
“You've got to have your offense moving and scoring because as long as [Tech's offense is] on track and on schedule, it's pretty effective,” Grantham said. “It's when there's a separation and they're off track, whether it be down-and-distance or score, then it becomes more difficult. So that's kind of a team thing right there. Fortunately we've been able to do that the last couple years. But it's a challenge to play it.”
Here are five factors to watch today as No. 25 Georgia visits No. 7 Auburn.
Defending the zone read: You've likely read this week that the No. 1 key for Georgia today is defending Auburn's running game, which leads the SEC and ranks third nationally at 320 yards per game. The centerpiece of that rushing attack is the zone-read run, where quarterback Nick Marshall has the option to hand off or run himself based on what he sees from the defense.
According to ESPN Stats and Information, Auburn leads the SEC in yards (150.5 ypg), touchdowns (17) and 10-yard plays (39) on zone-read runs and has gained at least 100 yards on such plays in six out of the last seven games. Marshall has run 62 times out of his 104 total carries on the zone read and averaged 9.3 yards per attempt -- including 221 yards against Tennessee last week, the most such yards by an AQ player in a game this season.
Georgia's edge players -- outside linebackers Jordan Jenkins and Leonard Floyd and nickelback Josh Harvey-Clemons -- must play a disciplined game along with linebackers Amarlo Herrera and Ramik Wilson in order to defend those plays. The Bulldogs have defended the run well overall, ranking fourth in the SEC with 120.6 yards allowed per game, but they have been erratic at setting the edge -- and that could be an important factor against Auburn.
Bulldogs' returning weapons: Todd Gurley and Michael Bennett have been back for a couple weeks. Now tight end Arthur Lynch and receiver Chris Conley could rejoin them in Georgia's offensive lineup. All of a sudden, Georgia's formerly explosive offense looks a lot more like the group that lit up scoreboards early in the season.
Tailback Gurley isn't back at 100 percent -- how big of a workload he can assume will be one of the biggest keys today -- but quarterback Aaron Murray should have some productive weapons at his disposal. Despite the injuries that have hit his team, Murray still has the sixth-best opponent-adjusted Total QBR (86.7 in the FBS this season and is completing 52.4 percent of his passes of 15 yards or more. The Bulldogs will likely look to strike on the big play today.
Special teams woes: Perhaps the scariest matchup for Georgia is its special teams units against Auburn's. UGA special teams ace Connor Norman said earlier this week that the distinguishing characteristic of Auburn return men Corey Grant and Chris Davis -- both of whom returned kicks for touchdowns last week -- and Tre Mason is their speed and aggressiveness in hitting the hole. Georgia is 13th in the SEC in kickoff coverage (38.1 yards per return), but ranks 18th nationally in punt return defense (4.1). The Bulldogs must also avoid the other special teams meltdowns like blocked punts and bad snaps that have plagued them at points this season.
Defending Auburn offense: The zone-read run is only one element of Auburn's offense that will concern Bulldogs defensive coordinator Todd Grantham. Marshall is an erratic thrower, but he has had success throwing the deep ball to Sammie Coates (26 catches for 648 and 5 TDs), who ranks second nationally with 24.9 yards per catch, and the wheel route to various receivers, including tight end C.J. Uzomah. It all starts with the run, though, as Auburn leads all AQ schools this season in rushing yards before contact (2,097 of its 3,200 yards came before the first hit).
An interesting side note in Georgia's attempt to defend the Tigers is that Harvey-Clemons has actually played the Marshall role in this scheme. He said his coach at Lowndes High School attended a coaching clinic at Auburn and implemented Gus Malzahn's offense with the athletic Harvey-Clemons moonlighting at quarterback in the Wing-T offshoot. The Vikings shied away from using Harvey-Clemons in that position as the season progressed because of the hits he was taking and because the fatigue from playing the position was affecting him on defense. But he said his time executing the offense could be of assistance on defense today as he tries to diagnose what Marshall and company are attempting.
Beat the press: Keep an eye on the Georgia receivers' abilities to get off the line as they run their pass routes. Auburn's defensive backs are known for their aggressive, press-coverage tactics as they try to disrupt wideouts' timing with their quarterbacks and provide an extra second or two for their pass rushers to record a sack. Auburn has enjoyed mixed results in that endeavor. The Tigers are fourth in the SEC with 23 sacks and 11 interceptions, but they're also 11th in the league in pass defense, surrendering 238.8 passing yards per game.
Rantavious Wooten: Although Georgia's offense struggled early, senior receiver Wooten delivered one of the top performances of his career. He opened Georgia's first touchdown drive with a 23-yard grab and capped it with a 35-yard scoring reception, and later added a 33-yard grab on a third-quarter field-goal drive. Wooten finished with four catches for a career-high 104 yards.
Ray Drew: The junior defensive end recorded his team-high sixth sack of the season and recorded two tackles for loss to reach eight for the season and move within one of Jordan Jenkins' team lead. Drew also knocked down a Kameron Bryant pass at the line of scrimmage.
Jordan Jenkins: The sophomore outside linebacker didn't record a sack or a tackle for a loss, but he came up with a couple of big plays on Saturday. Appalachian State drove for field goals on each of its first two drives, and it was looking for three more points to conclude its third possession when Jenkins blocked Drew Stewart's 49-yard kick early in the second quarter. Jenkins also picked up a Marcus Cox fumble and returned it to the Appalachian State 42-yard line, setting up a fourth-quarter touchdown drive. That was one of two takeaways for a Georgia defense that came in with the fewest turnovers gained (seven) in the SEC.
Florida's running game vs. Georgia's front seven: This is perhaps the most important matchup on this side of the ball. Florida's offensive identity is built around pounding the run and controlling the clock, and it made hay in that department with Mike Gillislee toting the rock an SEC-high 244 times for 1,152 yards last season. The results have been highly uneven this year with quarterback Jeff Driskel and running back Matt Jones sidelined by season-ending injuries. Georgia native Mack Brown (99-359, 3 TDs) is Florida's leading rusher, but he is not the Gators' scariest ball carrier. That honor goes to freshman Kelvin Taylor (28-172, TD), the son of Gator great Fred Taylor. Kelvin has played more recently. The problem is that, like most freshman, he is a liability in pass protection. Until he becomes a more consistent blocker, defenses know what Florida likely intends to do when he lines up in the backfield.
Georgia pass rushers vs. depleted Florida line: The Bulldogs' defense hasn't had much to brag about this season, but they have actually applied fairly consistent pressure against opposing quarterbacks. Georgia is tied for third in the SEC with 19 sacks -- many of which have come from the revitalized defensive line. Defensive end Ray Drew leads the team and is tied for fourth in the SEC with five sacks. Outside linebackers Leonard Floyd (four) and Jordan Jenkins (three) are just behind him. Florida has struggled with its pass protection this season, and it could be an even bigger issue on Saturday now that left tackle D.J. Humphries is out of the picture for the next few games. The Gators have allowed 17 sacks this season -- only Ole Miss and Vanderbilt (19 apiece) have allowed more among SEC teams -- so their injury-depleted line needs to raise its level of play or Florida's offense might have difficulty moving the ball on Saturday. Jarvis Jones, who wreaked havoc against Florida in each of the last two meetings, is no longer on the roster, but Drew, Jenkins and Floyd are good enough to give the Gators problems.
Tyler Murphy on the edge: Driskel's replacement under center, Murphy, started out well enough, leading the Gators to wins against Tennessee, Kentucky and Arkansas in his first three games. But Murphy took a pounding in the last two games, both losses, and Florida's offense was barely able to generate any scoring punch. He is most effective as a run-pass threat -- Murphy ran 10 times for 84 yards after taking over against Tennessee -- but his Total QBR numbers have fallen off a cliff since his strong start. According to ESPN Stats and Information, Murphy posted an outstanding Total QBR of 93.8 in the first three games, completing 72 percent of his passes, but he averaged an 8.9 QBR against LSU and Missouri -- including a 3.0 against Missouri, the lowest QBR by a Florida starter in the last decade. He'll have to make some things happen with his legs for Florida's offense to be effective Saturday, as he leaves a lot to be desired as a pure drop-back passer.
Containing Florida's receivers: The Gators have pretty much stunk in the passing game over the past few seasons, and 2013 has been no different (12th in the SEC in passing at 175.4 ypg). The speedy Solomon Patton (28-426, 4 TDs) -- whom Georgia safety Shawn Williams bulldog tackled just before he reached the first-down marker on a run last season, knocking Patton out of the game -- has been one of the Gators' only consistent receiving weapons. Otherwise, Florida's receiving corps has been a train wreck this season. Andre Debose is out for the year with an injury. Trey Burton (29-336, TD) has the most catches on the team, but hasn't been particularly consistent. Quinton Dunbar (22-301) is the only other Gator with more than 46 receiving yards. Georgia's secondary has been subpar this season -- the Bulldogs rank 11th in the SEC in pass defense (253.4 ypg) -- so the matchup between its defensive backs and Florida's mediocre wideouts pits two weaknesses against one another.
Burton as wild card: Think back to Florida's 2010 win in Jacksonville. Florida utility man Burton might have been the most effective quarterback on the field that day. Operating out of Florida's Wildcat package, Burton ran for 110 yards and two touchdowns, led the team with five receptions and completed two passes for 26 yards. He still operates out of the Wildcat at times, so keep an eye on the versatile senior, who is capable of impacting the game in a variety of ways.
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ATHENS, Ga. -- Brendan Douglas has been the hurdler and the hurdlee, so he has firsthand knowledge of the embarrassment that accompanies an opponent leaping directly over you. The thing is, the Georgia tailback still isn't sure what he should have done when teammate Jordan Jenkins hurdled his attempted block during the Bulldogs' second preseason scrimmage.
It wasn't like he dove at Jenkins' ankles on the play. The 5-foot-11 back was nearly standing straight up when he lunged to block Jenkins, and the linebacker simply jumped straight over him.
“You're just like, 'What am I supposed to do?' He just cleared me,” chuckled Douglas, who also hurdled cornerback Shaq Wiggins in the same scrimmage. “I didn't dive on the ground or anything. I just kind of lunged at him a little bit and then he was over me. I didn't know if I should like grab his foot or what. It's kind of like you've just got to let him go at that point.”
“I was shocked I got over him,” Jenkins said. “Actually I stopped and thought, 'Oh God, I got over him,' and I just tried to get LeMay.”
Two months later, teammates still marvel at the athleticism required for Jenkins to pull off such a move.
“That was crazy,” tailback J.J. Green said. “I've never seen something like that where somebody was standing straight up and you just jump right over them.”
Most Georgia fans were first introduced to the in-game hurdle when All-America tailback Knowshon Moreno famously jumped over a Central Michigan defender in a 2008 victory. However, Moreno's legend began to grow two years earlier when as a redshirting freshman on the scout team, he jumped over teammate Donavon Baldwin in practice.
“That was probably most impressive one I've seen,” offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said. “He did it down on the turf [practice] fields and I think he kept his feet and went on and scored.”
Hurdle sightings have become much more prevalent over the last few years as the sport's increasingly big and athletic players have demonstrated the ability to avoid blocks or tackle attempts at their ankles by simply jumping over their opponent.
Bulldogs tight end Arthur Lynch has attempted it a number of times, most recently when he successfully cleared Missouri defensive back Randy Ponder's diving tackle attempt along the UGA sideline, bringing some electricity back into Sanford Stadium after the Bulldogs had fallen behind 28-10 in the second quarter.
“I thought it really did bring the crowd back into it [against Missouri] and also just kind of gets into the mind of your opponent, as well,” Lynch said. “I know like in a boxing match, if you go for the body shot, body shot, body shot, go up top, you've got a guy thinking. I think it's the same concept. If you run somebody over, the next play he's going to lower his shoulder and not be able to see anything, and [you can] go over the top.”
But Lynch's successful hurdle still surprised his teammates -- even his buddy Aaron Murray.
“I didn't think he could get that high,” said Murray, Georgia's quarterback. “I don't think anyone did, but that was pretty sweet.”
On the final defensive play of Georgia's 44-41 win against LSU, Jenkins attempted his pass-rush hurdle again, but it didn't go quite as smoothly. Rushing from the right side, he tried to soar over a block from LSU's Travis Dickson – and he was nearly successful again.
He cleared Dickson with his right leg, but the LSU tight end caught Jenkins' left leg and flipped him into the air. Tigers quarterback Zach Mettenberger stepped backward with Jenkins flying toward him and Leonard Floyd rushing into his face and threw incomplete for a turnover on downs that sealed Georgia's win.
“I didn't pick up my leg like I was supposed to,” Jenkins said. “It's like when you try to jump a hurdle in track, if you don't pick up that back leg, you'll fall down.”
Nonetheless, the hurdle is proving to be an effective-enough technique that Georgia tight ends coach John Lilly instructs his players to look for chances to leap over smaller defenders who will try to take out their legs instead of attempting a traditional tackle.
But even when a player sees his opponent lowering his head and preparing to hit him low, Jenkins said it takes a little something extra to attempt the hurdle instead of a different method of getting away.
“You've got to have that swagger to do it,” Jenkins said. “As long as you have it in your mind, if you know you can do it, if you have it in your head thinking, 'I know I can get this guy' and just commit to that, you can do it. But if you're half-guessing yourself, it ain't going to work out.”
The speed typically increases as a talented, capable player grows more comfortable with what he's doing -- and that's why Shaq Wiggins' interception for a 39-yard touchdown last Saturday against Vanderbilt is an encouraging sign for the freshman cornerback.
“I was sitting there and lining up and trying to figure out what we're going to do and if we were lined up right,” Georgia outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins said. “When I saw it on film, Shaq read it in maybe two seconds. He saw that nobody was blocking him and they made a mistake and just left him unblocked. He saw the quarterback go back and he took off in front of the man and just picked it off. That's definitely something you don't see out of many young guys this early in their career.”
This has been far from a banner season for Georgia's beleagured defensive backfield, but Wiggins is quickly emerging as a bright spot. He gave up a couple of long passes against Missouri -- including one for a fourth-quarter touchdown on a double pass -- but has also made some big plays.
He started for the third straight game against Vanderbilt and recorded both an interception and a pass breakup that was nearly his second pick of the game. He said learning how to make better use of his study time has helped him become a more productive defender, as he said he had seen the trick play the Commodores attempted before on film.
“I was kind of confused when all those linemen came out, so I knew it was either going to be a screen or a pass to the other side, to the other receivers. … I just kind of read it before those big linemen got some hands on me and just made a play on the ball,” Wiggins said.
The truly impressive part is that Georgia hadn't worked on that play at all, Jenkins said. The freshman simply made a quick decision that allowed him to short circuit the play before the Commodores knew what hit them.
“I'd never seen an alignment like that before,” Jenkins said. “That wasn't in our dress rehearsal, anything, and you've got to credit Shaq for that.”
“That is the kind of play Georgia's players are beginning to expect from Wiggins. He has already shot into the backfield on screen passes to record three tackles for a loss and generally displayed the competitiveness and speed that helped make him the highest-rated prospect in Georgia's 2013 signing class according to ESPN's recruiting rankings.
I called it before the game in an interview I did. They asked me who was going to make a play on the ball, who was going to get a strip or an interception or something and I said it was Shaq Wiggins.” Defensive end Garrison Smith on Wiggins' pick-six vs. Vanderbilt.
“I called it before the game in an interview I did,” senior defensive end Garrison Smith said. “They asked me who was going to make a play on the ball, who was going to get a strip or an interception or something and I said it was Shaq Wiggins. Some guys are just gifted with different abilities and he's just one of the guys that I can tell he's got great ball skills. That's one of the things he's good at, so I wasn't surprised at all when he did that.”
Like secondary mates Brendan Langley, Quincy Mauger and Tray Matthews, Wiggins is a freshman who was thrown into the fire because of the Bulldogs' lack of veteran depth at their positions.
They have all experienced their struggles, but a play like his pick-six confirms that the light is clicking on for Wiggins. The big plays he surrendered against Missouri were a painful learning experience, too, but the freshman believes difficult matchups against such high-caliber receivers as Vandy's Jordan Matthews and Mizzou's Dorial Green-Beckham will only help accelerate his development.
Even for a player so small that Jenkins joked with him that Wiggins “looked like a JV high school player playing up in college.”
“I look at myself every day in the mirror and it's always obvious that I'm probably the smallest guy on the field. I just play with a chip on my shoulder,” said Wiggins, who is generously listed at 5-foot-10. “Like a lot of fans and other people say, 'He's too small, can't guard so-and-so receiver,' so I just kind of take that, keep that in the back of my head and make plays. The more plays you make, the more people will start believing in you and feeling comfortable with you on the field. I think I'm kind of proving that.”
Shaq Wiggins: A lack of turnovers has been a major issue for Georgia's defense this season, but freshman cornerback Wiggins provided an enormous boost when he quickly diagnosed a Vanderbilt trick play, intercepted an Austyn Carta-Samuels pass and returned the pick 39 yards for a touchdown. That gave Georgia a 17-14 lead and an enormous shot in the arm when Vandy seemed to have momentum on its side. Wiggins nearly had another interception in the second half, but settled for a key pass breakup. He finished the day with one tackle, one PBU and the first interception of his career.
Jordan Jenkins: Jenkins predicted before the season that he would record double-digit sacks this fall, but had only one at the season's midway point. He jump started his pursuit of that total against Vanderbilt, however, notching two sacks along with three tackles for a loss, one pass breakup and five tackles. Jenkins joked this week that he can't allow Ray Drew (who has a team-high five sacks) to lead the Bulldogs this season, and he finally took some steps toward catching his teammate on Saturday.
Ramik Wilson: By far the biggest play of the game involving Wilson actually went for a penalty against the Georgia linebacker. But it's not his fault that the officials completely dropped the ball on the play, when he broke up a fourth-down pass with a big hit on Jonathan Krause. The referees initially flagged Wilson for targeting, a 15-yard penalty that carries an automatic ejection, although the ejection was overturned upon further review. The 15-yard penalty remained, however, and Vandy got a free first down at Georgia's 15-yard line, which it turned into a touchdown to make it 27-21. The Commodores drove to Georgia's 13-yard line on their next drive before Wilson's 13-yard sack forced a third-and-extra-long and an eventual field goal to make it 27-24 Bulldogs. Wilson also recorded eight tackles on top of his sack and TFL.
“I wouldn't say doubt is the word, but I believe that everyone coming into college, unless you just come in and you're a freshman All-American and you're playing every snap from the time you get here until the time you leave, I believe that there is a wall that every player hits that they'll ask the question, 'Well did I make the right decision?' or maybe 'Am I as good as I thought I was?' or maybe 'I should have done something else,' ” Drew said after Tuesday's practice.
After juggling outside linebacker and defensive end responsibilities in his first season and struggling to adapt to his role on the defensive line for much of his sophomore campaign, Drew is finally starting to touch the potential that ESPN talent evaluators saw in naming him as the nation's No. 13 overall prospect and No. 2 defensive end in the 2011 signing class.
He notched two sacks in each of the Bulldogs' last two games, against Tennessee and Missouri, after logging his first quarterback takedown since 2011 in the Bulldogs' win over LSU. The junior now leads the team in both tackles for a loss (six) and sacks (five) and registered a season-high seven tackles against Missouri.
“He's made a big difference,” said linebacker Amarlo Herrera, who was a member of Drew's 2011 signing class. “He's getting a lot of sacks and he's becoming the D-lineman that everybody knew he could be.”
That's a credit to Drew's perseverance, as it wasn't long ago that it was reasonable to wonder whether he might never live up to his billing.
The only defensive end rated higher in that class was South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney. But while Clowney was an instant hit with the Gamecocks and became an obvious NFL prospect early in his career, Drew's learning curve was much steeper. The comparison to Clowney and other elite prospects who were contributing earlier in their careers didn't help Drew's confidence either.
“Let's be honest, it kind of messes with you when you're a five-star recruit and you get all this attention and love from the media and public about how good you are, and then all of a sudden you come to college and you're nothing no more,” senior defensive end Garrison Smith said.
“You've got to build yourself all the way back up and you're not playing on that level that you want to play on, and then you've got the guy right in front of you playing like he's in the NFL already, Jadeveon Clowney. So that would mess with anybody's self-esteem.
“But that's why it's like a marathon. It's not about how you start, it's how you finish and he's getting better and better, and that's what it's all about.”
Drew is certainly on pace for a strong finish. He has started four of the last five games after failing to start once in his first two seasons. And his 22 tackles this season have nearly matched his career total (31) prior to this season.
Bulldogs coach Mark Richt said Tuesday that Drew is “becoming a little bit of a force” and defensive coordinator Todd Grantham added that “finally the light clicked on and now he's playing the way we felt he could play.”
Not that every Bulldog is necessarily happy about Drew's status as the team's sack leader.
“We can't let Ray lead us in sacks,” laughed outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins. “We gave them sacks away because we're coming off the edge and he steps up right into Ray's hands. But I can't discredit Ray. He definitely came a long way and he's always a fighter, he understands the plays and he understands what to do and he's just balling out there. But we can't let him have the lead by the end of the season.”
With only one sack to his credit so far, Jenkins has a lot of sacking to do if he is to catch up to Drew.
That might come as a surprise to most who follow Georgia's program -- and maybe to Drew himself -- but Drew said before the season that he planned to stop putting so much pressure on himself. That approach seems to be paying off.
“I would say that [my first two seasons were] helpful,” Drew said. “They've been informative -- helped me learn more about myself as a player and they've helped me growing not only as a football player, but as a person, as well, because up to this time in the football world, I really hadn't had to face any adversity. So now being in the position that I am, I think it made me a stronger person.”
“If you let him get going a little bit, he's going to be a hard guy for some of the smaller linebackers and DBs to tackle,” Jenkins said of Franklin, who will lead Missouri's potent offense against the Bulldogs on Saturday.
Keeping Franklin bottled up -- and getting him on the ground -- will be a major test for Georgia's shaky defense. No prideful defensive player wants to get flattened by a quarterback, but Franklin has already done his share of flattening.
He comes in averaging 5.2 yards per carry as one piece of Missouri's four-pronged rushing attack that leads the SEC with an average of 258.8 yards per game.
“He's a quarterback. If he comes my way, I'm going to try to kill him. That's just it,” Georgia safety Josh Harvey-Clemons said. “I've seen games where he does lower his shoulder like that. That's the last thing you want to do is get run over by a quarterback.”
Georgia has faced plenty of dual-threat quarterbacks since Todd Grantham became the Bulldogs' defensive coordinator in 2010 and has experienced mixed results against the group as a whole. They were 5-5 in his first two seasons against BCS-conference quarterbacks who rushed for at least 200 yards in a season – surrendering at least 70 rushing yards to a quarterback four times in those 10 games.
Overall, the Bulldogs have done a better job limiting the damage against dual-threat quarterbacks since then, surrendering 70 rushing yards to a quarterback twice -- both times it was South Carolina's Connor Shaw -- and posting an 8-2 record against teams whose offenses utilized a mobile quarterback.
That includes a 41-20 win against Franklin and Missouri last season, when Georgia did its best to take away the run and force Franklin to try and win with his arm. He threw 41 passes that game, completing 25 for 269 yards and two scores, but picked up only 25 rushing yards on 20 attempts.
“Last year our focus was really making him play quarterback and not run over [us] because all we heard from the reports was that he was a big quarterback, he could move and that he's just a guy that's not easy to take down,” Jenkins said. “We're just really going to try and focus on keeping him in the pocket at times.”
Largely while trying to pass from the pocket, Franklin absorbed a Jarvis Jones-led beating that night in Columbia that affected him for the rest of the season. Jones harassed Missouri's quarterback into multiple turnovers and hit him hard enough that Franklin missed the following week's game against Arizona State. Truthfully, Franklin was not the same player for the rest of the season, as injuries set in and prevented him from playing the physical style that suits him best.
“The Tank” seems to be back, however, as Franklin has led No. 25 Missouri (5-0, 1-0) to an undefeated start by passing for 1,407 yards and 13 touchdowns against three interceptions and rushing for 278 yards and two scores.
“James is healthy and he's more confident. He's running well. ... He's standing in the pocket with a lot of confidence and he's very accurate,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said of Franklin, who is completing 68 percent of his passes. “He's on target and he looks like he's in his element.”
Taking him out of his element for a second straight season will be the goal for Georgia's defense -- but it must do so without Jones around to wreak havoc in the Mizzou backfield. In fact, only three starters remain from the group that took the field last season in Columbia, so Franklin and the rest of Missouri's explosive spread offense appear to be a major match-up challenge for Grantham's young defense.
“Anytime you've got a quarterback that can run the ball in the spread, they make you defend the entire field with the formations and with what they're doing,” Grantham said. “Anytime the quarterback runs the ball, you've got truly 11-on-11 and he can create an extra gap, so when you do that, you obviously create some issues that you've got to address.”
Shaw and Clemson's Tajh Boyd, both talented dual-threat quarterbacks, exploited those issues and enjoyed success against the Bulldogs earlier this season.
Defensive lineman Garrison Smith emphasized that the Bulldogs don't necessarily need a performance like the one Jones delivered last season in order to fare better against Franklin, but that his fellow defenders must play with improved discipline. The Bulldogs must do a more consistent job of playing their assignments correctly on Saturday, or the Tigers will almost certainly put together another explosive offensive showing.
“You've got to make individual plays,” Grantham said. “This game is about winning one-on-one matchups and when you get into those situations, you've got to make it.”
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ATHENS, Ga. -- Minutes after Georgia players sprinted into their locker room following a triumphant 44-41 back-and-forth win over LSU, offensive coordinator Mike Bobo instructed them to get right back on the playing field.
Drenched in sweat and oozing that sweaty odor of victory, the Bulldogs rushed the field for a curtain call in front of a nearly filled stadium with fans too elated to leave. Players threw fists in the air, high-fived fans over the hedges lining the field and smiled boyish smiles as they gave Sanford Stadium half of a victory lap.
It was a gutty win at the end of a bloody month of September, but it moved the Bulldogs, who now sit at 2-0 in SEC play, even closer to their third straight SEC championship appearance in Atlanta.
"I'm just happy for everyone -- players, the coaching staff," said quarterback Aaron Murray, who threw for 298 yards and four touchdowns with an interception Saturday. "It was a special moment being in this locker room afterwards with the guys celebrating, and then being on the field afterwards with the fans was awesome."
The Bulldogs aren't perfect. They won't be beating their chests later thinking they're invincible, but they have to feel pretty good about their odds of making it back to Atlanta. South Carolina needs Georgia to lose two conference games if it wants a chance at the East. Florida is banged up and sporting another struggling offense. Vanderbilt has two SEC losses, while Tennessee and Kentucky have new coaches and the same old problems.
Unless there's a real shocker, and Missouri -- which is the only East team yet to play a conference game -- flies through SEC play this year, the East is Georgia's to lose.
We know the Bulldogs are going to give up points (lots of them), we know they're going to give up yards (tons of them) and we know they're going to miss tackles (way too many of them), but we also know that the offense is going to bail them out. The offense is going to score and move a lot each week.
The Bulldogs are averaging 554 yards and more than 41 points per game. Against South Carolina and LSU, the Bulldogs piled up 1,030 yards and 85 points. The toughest remaining test for this offense waits in Jacksonville, Fla., when Georgia takes on rival Florida. The Gators own one of the nation's best defenses, and it's the only SEC defense remaining for the Dawgs giving up fewer than 360 yards of offense per game.
But it's not like Florida's offense is blowing anyone away, while Georgia proved once again that it can line up and score when it needs to.
"We're ready. We're here, man," wide receiver Justin Scott-Wesley said. "We can take on anybody, anytime.
"We'll take anybody, anywhere."
The offense showed exactly that when it didn't miss a beat when Keith Marshall filled in for Todd Gurley after Gurley sustained an ankle injury before the half. It showed it again after LSU took a 41-37 lead with 4:14 remaining in the fourth quarter. The Bulldogs just marched 75 yards on just six plays, including a dagger of a 25-yard touchdown catch by Scott-Wesley.
"It was pretty cool, man," Scott-Wesley said of his touchdown. "I just wanted to put the nail in the coffin for my team and move on to the next one."
And the next one is Tennessee, then Vanderbilt and then Florida. After that, a Nov. 16 trip to Auburn will stand as the Bulldogs' final real test for a shot at the East. After a brutal first month of football that featured three top-10 matchups -- Clemson, South Carolina and LSU -- the Bulldogs get a bit of a breather.
"I'm glad we got that over with," linebacker Jordan Jenkins said. "Our future is only going to get brighter.
"It's a race to get the East now. We're just paving our road to success."
Again, the East is officially Georgia's to lose, but the Dawgs are being cautious. They were rowdy immediately after the win, but they know a slip-up with a shaky defense could be costly.
"Next week, if we think it's going to be any easier, we're crazy," coach Mark Richt said. "We're going to Knoxville, Tennessee, man. They're going to be fired up. Their fans are going to be ready to go. If we think it's going to be anything less than what we've been living through, we're nuts."
It's still a long season, but Georgia's 2-0 SEC start feels like a chokehold on the rest of the East. With the caliber of teams the Bulldogs have already played, Georgia has shown it has matured and developed. That's a recipe for success, and a bad combination for the rest of the division.
"We've been through a lot so far these first four games," Murray said. "We've grown was a team, we've matured a lot and we're a lot better off right now than we were a month ago."
The No. 9 Bulldogs (2-1, 1-0 SEC) know they lost any margin for error when they dropped their opener at Clemson, making Saturday's date with No. 6 LSU (4-0, 1-0) nothing less than a must-win game for Georgia.
“This is like an elimination game,” Georgia cornerback Damian Swann said. “To get to that Game 7, you've got to win Game 6 and I think this is a Game 6 for us and that's how we're going to approach it and that's how we're going to take it.”
The Bulldogs focused this week on a number of areas in need of improvement, most notably special teams, where Georgia has committed at least one glaring error in each game. Georgia coach Mark Richt opened the long snapping job for competition and said his coaching staff would re-evaluate the personnel on the various kicking units, potentially utilizing more starters on the coverage teams.
But aside from that department, this week is all about quality control for both teams -- each of which has been plagued by consistency issues. In particular, their young defenses must minimize the mistakes that characterized their play at points in the season's first month, and they must do it against opponents who establish themselves with powerful running games.
Georgia and LSU boast two of the SEC's top tailbacks in Todd Gurley (125.7 ypg, first in the SEC) and Jeremy Hill (117, third), who rushed for 184 yards in LSU's 35-21 win against Auburn last Saturday.
“It will be interesting to see who can run the ball and who can run it well,” Richt said. “Both teams are very capable of it, but on any given Saturday you don't know what's going to happen. We like ours and I'm sure they like theirs, and I like theirs and they probably like ours. They're just great players and it's going to be fun to watch.”
While both teams' main defensive objectives will be to limit the opponent's running games, overemphasizing the run could make them vulnerable to the play-action pass. Georgia's offense is perhaps a bit more potent through the air -- quarterback Aaron Murray leads the SEC with 346.7 ypg . LSU's improved passing game with quarterback Zach Mettenberger and receivers Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry will certainly test Georgia's secondary.
“I feel like we'll see a lot more of the famous play-action play Bama ran against us with Amari Cooper [for the game-winning touchdown last season],” Georgia outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins said. “I feel like if we can stop the run, then we won't be so worried about it and we can run a little bit more pressures and stunts to throw Mettenberger off his passing game. But I feel like our mindset this week is really going to be towards stopping the run and preventing them from getting that asset this game.”
Saturday's winner will likely be the team that minimizes its mistakes most effectively.
Georgia and LSU's respective resumes are among the most impressive in the league over the last few years, and their 2013 iterations appear to be evenly matched on paper. When teams like that meet, the victor is often the team that makes the fewest errors.
“You keep fighting like mad to not give up big plays,” Richt said. “You fight like mad to get turnovers. You fight like mad to find ways to get a big stop and a momentum-changing stop somewhere along the way, and that's what we're trying to do.”