By PETE IACOBELLI
COLUMBIA, S.C. — Georgia coach Mark Richt is not worried about his team’s defense, no matter how many yards the Bulldogs have allowed this season.
No. 5 Georgia ranks near the bottom of the Southeastern Conference, 10th among league defenses at more than 370 yards a game given up.
That’s almost 100 yards more than the team gave up a game a year ago when Georgia was fourth in the league and adding to the SEC’s reputation for powerhouse defense. The Bulldogs (5-0, 3-0 SEC) must ramp things up defensively today against No. 6 South Carolina (5-0, 3-0) in a Eastern Division showdown sure to have a bearing on who will play for an SEC championship.
Richt says his players have made the critical stops with the game on the line, something that’s helped the Bulldogs to their first 5-0 start since 2006.
Not that it’s been pretty. Georgia gave up 371 yards in the SEC opener against Missouri and 478 last week in beating Tennessee 51-44.
Richt brushes aside the outside grumbling about Georgia’s porous defense. Great stats, he says, don’t always equal winning records. “I was more concerned about are we going to stop people when we have to stop them, when it means the most,” Richt said. “I think that happened in the Missouri game and I think it happened in the Tennessee game defensively.
“I’m pleased with that,” he said.
Georgia got three turnovers to hold on against Missouri, including a fourth-quarter interception by star linebacker Jarvis Jones. The Bulldogs picked up three interceptions and a fumble to beat the Vols. Perhaps more importantly, the defense got back suspended starters in linebacker Alec Ogletree and safety Baccarri Rambo.
Ogletree made a career-high 14 tackles and tipped a pass that led to an interception. Rambo had nine tackles.
Jones is the leader, though, with 4 sacks and eight tackles for loss this season.
Georgia has had its troubles stopping South Carolina’s rushing attack the past two years. Gamecocks star Marcus Lattimore scorched the Bulldogs for 182 yards and two touchdowns in 2010 and 176 yards and a touchdown last season — both South Carolina victories.
The Gamecocks have picked up defensively where they left off a year ago when they finished third nationally.
South Carolina’s defense showed that last week in a 38-17 win at Kentucky. The Gamecocks gave up 196 yards and trailed 17-7 at the half, then held the Wildcats to 47 yards and no points the rest of the way.
Sophomore defensive end Jadeveon Clowney is second in the SEC with 5 sacks. Clowney’s sack of Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray late in last year’s 45-42 win over the Bulldogs led to a crucial fumble that Melvin Ingram returned for a touchdown and provided the Gamecocks’ winning margin.
South Carolina has been just as disruptive on defense this season, tied for second in the country with 22 sacks. Defensive line coach Brad Lawing says the Gamecocks are gaining pressure without blitzing — he thinks they’ve called two blitzes all season — taking advantage of speed rushers like Clowney and defensive end Devin Taylor to affect quarterbacks.
“Those are the best defenses, when you trust your players to just make plays and they do that,” said Murray, who’ll again have to dodge South Carolina’s quick defenders. “They do a great job of getting pressure on the quarterback without blitzing.”
Murray has connected on 68 percent of his passes this year, throwing for 12 touchdowns and three interceptions. Georgia’s offensive line is also rounding into form, giving up just two of the team’s seven sacks allowed in the last three games.
Georgia’s offense took a hit this week with the loss of leading receiver Michael Bennett, who tore a knee ligament at practice Tuesday. That means the Bulldogs could rely even more heavily on freshmen runners Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall — nicknamed “Gur-shall” by fans — who combined for 294 yards and five TDs against the Vols last week.
Clowney thinks the Gamecocks can get to Murray again and slow down a Bulldogs’ offense that’s scored 41 points or better in every game this season. “Every quarterback if you get pressure on them, they’re going to make mistakes,” Clowney said.
South Carolina is seeking its school record 10th straight victory and its third in a row over Georgia, something that’s never happened in a series first played in 1894.
Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier says he’s not putting much stock into Georgia’s defensive numbers, expecting a stout group of Bulldogs ready to fight for every yard. Spurrier, like Richt, says Georgia plays well in the fourth quarter when it matters most.
Stats bear that out, the Bulldogs gave given up 37 second-half points this year compared to the 73 opponents have scored on them in the first two quarters.
“Reminds me a little bit of Auburn two years ago, their defense wasn’t ranked very high either,” Spurrier said. “In the fourth quarter, they stopped people. They won every game, somehow, doing that.”