UGA defense realigns for Eagles' offense

ATHENS, Ga. -- Todd Grantham didn’t even need to hear an entire question about Georgia Southern’s offensive capabilities before bluntly tossing out a statistic.

“They had 370 on Alabama last year,” Grantham said, shortly after his Georgia defense posted its first shutout of the season against Auburn, 38-0.

The Georgia defensive coordinator’s math was slightly off -- Georgia Southern finished with 341 yards of total offense last season at Alabama -- but that did not reduce his greater point. The Eagles hung big numbers on an Alabama defense that was not only the best in college football last season, but one of the sport’s best in at least the last decade, and his team can’t afford to look beyond this Saturday’s opponent, which is ranked sixth in the FCS polls.

Georgia Southern’s flexbone rushing attack is so completely different from the more traditional offenses the fifth-ranked Bulldogs (9-1) have faced that Grantham and his players will have to completely reconfigure their defensive scheme in order to defend the Eagles (8-2).

And even then, they expect to have their hands full -- to the point that Grantham doesn’t want his players to view this week’s game as a warm-up for the following week’s matchup against rival Georgia Tech and its similar, option-based flexbone.

“No, because if you watch the Alabama game, they chopped them like trees, they had [302] yards rushing and they know what they’re doing,” Grantham said. “They’re as good as Georgia Tech. They are. We’ve got to play.”

Even if Grantham is exaggerating somewhat, the Eagles certainly opened Alabama’s eyes. No, the Crimson Tide didn’t exactly sweat out its 45-21 win, although it led just 24-14 at halftime. But Alabama's 3-4 defense loaded with future NFL talent -- similar to the one Grantham employs at Georgia -- struggled through perhaps its least effective outing of the season.

The Eagles had 302 rushing yards, 7.7 yards per carry, 341 yards of total offense, 21 points and a rushing touchdown -- all of which either matched or stood alone as the season-highs against the Tide’s vaunted defense in 2011.

Then-freshman Dominique Swope rushed for 153 yards and a touchdown against the Tide -- also highs for an Alabama opponent -- so this is a situation when Grantham and Georgia’s defensive coaches need to do little more than show their players film of that game in order to convince them to take their Saturday opponent seriously.

“There’s no doubt about that because our defenses are very similar in how they line up and how they try to scheme things, so I don’t think there’s any doubt that will be the best film by far for us to show our defense,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said.

The problem with his temporary defensive assignment, Grantham said, is that it does nothing to help his players work on concepts that will be useful for their next big SEC game.

The Bulldogs wrapped up their regular-season conference slate with the victory over Auburn that clinched the SEC East title. They will have their work cut out in the Dec. 1 SEC championship game -- most likely against No. 4 Alabama and its physical, pro-style offense -- so two weeks spent preparing for the cut blocking and misdirection runs they will face against Georgia Southern and Georgia Tech are far from ideal.

“You’re going to do something for two weeks that’s not going to help you for the SEC championship,” Grantham admitted.

Swope rushed for 98 yards and two touchdowns on four carries in last Saturday’s 69-26 win against Howard, while quarterback Jerick McKinnon -- the team’s leading rusher at 105.3 yards per game -- had 198 yards and three scores on 16 attempts. And as a team, the Eagles lead the FCS in rushing offense (401.2 yards per game), yards per carry (6.68) and rushing touchdowns (42).

So needless to say, this Saturday and next will require a major adjustment from Georgia’s defense if it wants to continue its roll that started with the Florida game -- a three-game stretch in which they have allowed a total of 19 points, forced 11 turnovers and surrendered an average of 246 yards per game.

“It’s mainly more mental than physical because it ain’t about nobody just out-physicaling you and dominating you,” defensive end Garrison Smith said of facing the new scheme. “It’s about you doing your assignment and if you don’t do it, one person don’t do their assignment, that’s the touchdown they’re going to get. All it takes is for one person to not do their job and it’s a touchdown.”