ATHENS, Ga. – If Georgia is to remain on pace to play for the SEC championship for a third straight season, the number "3" must stop being such a bugaboo.
As in third down, a place where too many Bulldogs drives have died lately and too many opponent drives have found new life. Those trends are a concern for No. 7 Georgia (4-1, 3-0 SEC) as it prepares to host No. 25 Missouri (5-0, 1-0) and its high-scoring offense on Saturday.
“The biggest problem we've got right now is third down. Both sides of the ball, we were not very good on third down,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said of his Bulldogs' performance in last Saturday's 34-31 win against Tennessee. “It's hard to get offensive teams into third-and-long and the last two games, we've had our opponents in third-and-long. We've got to get off the field and we just haven't done that enough.
“And offensively, I think we might have had two third-down conversions [they were 4-for-13]. As well as we've played on offense in a lot of ways, if we convert some more third downs, we're going to score more points and keep it away from the other team and all that.”
The issue is of particular concern on defense, where Georgia ranks dead last in the SEC by allowing opponents to convert 44 percent of their third-down opportunities (33-for-75) for first downs. That include's LSU's 10-for-15 showing on third down two games ago – including a now-infamous conversion on third-and-22 – and Tennessee's 7-for-17 last week, when the Volunteers were also 3-for-3 on fourth down.
“There's good things that happened, but when you give up a big play here or there, you take away a lot of good things that you do,” defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said. “So we've just got to keep working and finish it off the right way.”
Perhaps more striking was Georgia's inability to extend drives last week against Tennessee. Certainly one factor was the absence of All-SEC tailback Todd Gurley and the in-game injuries suffered by tailback Keith Marshall and receivers Justin Scott-Wesley and Michael Bennett. But the Bulldogs had converted only one third down in nine tries against the Vols before quarterback Aaron Murray led them to three conversions on their game-tying touchdown drive at the end of regulation.
Still, the veterans on offense understand that they must return to their old form -- the Bulldogs were third in the SEC by converting 47.5 percent of their third downs last season -- in order to help limit Missouri's chances against Grantham's young defense on Saturday.
“We kind of got in three-and-outs and short drives and missed a field goal. When you kind of put your defense back on the field with no momentum and with no points, it's kind of hard for them to really buckle up,” tight end Arthur Lynch said. “As soon as that momentum changed in that stadium, I think anyone who was at that game knew it was a different mindset for Tennessee. We gave them a lot of life when it was 17-3 and then it was 17-10 and they tied it up and that kind of put our defense in a bind, I think. So I think our offense probably kind of hung them out to dry right there.”