His team had multiple opportunities for easy interceptions, at least two of which could have been returned for touchdowns, but the Bulldogs never capitalized.
Reshad Jones was Georgia’s only defensive back to record an interception last season, but one day after the Bulldogs’ loss to Oklahoma State, he was out at the practice field working on catching the football again. He didn’t want his next opportunity at a game-changing turnover to be missed, too.
After spending the past 10 months answering questions about their coach’s job, their own intensity and their lack of success on the field, Georgia’s defensive veterans were thrilled to turn in a strong performance in the Bulldogs’ opener, but this week, the focus remained on all the little things they hadn’t gotten right.
“At the end of the day, we didn’t come out with a victory, and we didn’t do all we could do to win the game,” Jones said. “We were very disappointed because I think we dropped three picks and I think we could have come out with a victory if we made those plays.”
Georgia’s defense was widely criticized for its lack of fundamentals a year ago, and the Bulldogs finished the regular season by allowing 38 or more points in four of their final five contests. But Saturday’s loss to Oklahoma State was a minor step back toward respectability for the unit.
Georgia held one of the country’s most dynamic offenses to more than 200 yards below its average from a year ago and managed to keep the game close despite an anemic offensive performance. Three turnovers and a long kick return by the Cowboys put pressure on the Bulldogs’ defense, but unlike a year ago, the unit didn’t collapse under pressure.
“Nobody flinched defensively, even when there was turnovers or sudden change, everybody kept a good morale and was positive and that made a huge difference,” linebacker Rennie Curran said. “I feel like our defense has matured greatly from what happened last year, and we’re just ready to continue to get better. We all realize that we can be as good of a defense as we want to be.”
Still, it was hard to escape the nagging feeling that more could have been done.
As the defense struggled last season, Georgia’s high-flying offense kept the team in games. In the Bulldogs’ opener this year, the defense wanted to return the favor, but the opportunity slipped through their hands.
“After the game, we were devastated that we missed those opportunities,” Evans said. “After you look at it on film, if a couple of people could have caught those interceptions, there was no one in front of them, so that could have been 14 points on the board. After you look at it like that, it’s frustrating.”
What makes the feeling even more aggravating is that the problem is not a new one for the defense.
The Bulldogs missed chances to create crucial turnovers throughout the 2008 season, so the coaching staff made it a priority during the offseason to have defenders work on their pass-catching skills.
The results appeared to be dramatic. Defensive coordinator Willie Martinez tracked the number of ball disruptions throughout fall camp and said it was the most he could remember during his tenure at Georgia. Interceptions during practice were routine, and the team thought it had put the drops behind them.
“It was frustrating to be that close to shutting an offense like that down, and the one thing that held us back was the thing we’ve been working on for the longest,” Curran said.
Oklahoma State mustered just one scoring drive of more than 32 yards, but that won’t be what Georgia’s defense remembers.
This week, the unit gets another test against South Carolina, a game that has traditionally come down to a few key plays, usually on the defensive side of the ball. Neither team has topped 20 points since 2003, and Curran isn’t expecting a different outcome this year.
That means it won’t be good enough for Georgia’s defense to simply slow the Gamecocks down, as it did Oklahoma State. To be dominant, Curran said, means the Bulldogs can’t let an opportunity at a big play slip past them.
“We looked at last week and saw what mistakes we made,” Curran said. “We still didn’t take those steps to shut them down like we really could if we’d executed on all four cylinders. If we had made good use of taking those interceptions, I really feel like we could have taken the air out of them. We can’t let that happen if we want to be a dominant defense.”