Slow starts plaguing UGA defense

ATHENS, Ga. -- Todd Grantham said throughout the offseason that he wanted to build a defense that finished strong in the fourth quarter -- and the Bulldogs largely have done that.

It is unlikely, however, that Georgia’s defensive coordinator envisioned his unit struggling as much as it has before reaching that final period, not after the Bulldogs developed a reputation for starting fast in their resurgent 2011 season.

And yet somehow a Georgia defense that returned almost all of its starting personnel from a group that allowed just 27 first-quarter points in 14 games last season typically struggles early in games before closing with a flourish.

“I think the thing that these guys have done is maybe haven’t started fast, but they’ve always been pretty resilient and played better as the game went along,” said Grantham, whose defense will face No. 2 Florida on Saturday. “Our second-half point total is significantly lower than our first-half point total, which is a credit to the players and shows a little bit of effort, toughness, resiliency and those kinds of things, because they aren’t giving in.

“So I think it’s critical that they understand that we do need to start fast in this game, because you’re facing a really good team that doesn’t give up a lot of points, and it’s critical that we match their defensive play.”

The Bulldogs’ one loss this season came in a game in which they failed to do that.

Georgia’s slow start against South Carolina -- the Gamecocks’ 177 first-quarter yards marked the worst yardage total in any quarter this season for the Bulldogs’ defense -- allowed that game to turn into a 35-7 rout.

“Sometimes that’s what hurt us, getting off to those slow starts and before we knew it, it’s too late,” cornerback Damian Swann said. “We got off very slow against South Carolina. By that time, they had all the momentum, they were at home and they were making the big plays and they just ran off with it.”

The South Carolina game is the most glaring example, but it is not the only one. Even last week against Kentucky, a previously punchless Wildcats offense drove 84 yards on its first possession for its first first-quarter offensive touchdown in 21 games.

That sputtering performance prompted senior safety Shawn Williams to vent to reporters after Monday’s practice that the Bulldogs’ defense had been “soft” this season. And many of his teammates agreed, particularly early in games.

The Bulldogs have allowed an average of 99 yards in the first quarter this season, the most they surrender in any individual quarter. And their average of 7.29 points allowed in the first quarter trails only the 8.14 they allow in the second quarter.

“I’d say it’s a little bit of maybe freelancing, undisciplined, early on and then realizing what have we done for two or three quarters,” linebacker Christian Robinson said. “We have a great fourth-quarter record with yardage and things like that. I think that’s the major thing is coming out and trying to do a little too much as individuals, and that leads to undisciplined plays and big plays.

“We kind of get a gut check, usually, from Coach Grantham on the sidelines that a lot of people see. One thing you can tell a sign of a mature defense is the way that they can adjust. I think we have that.”

Senior cornerback Sanders Commings hazarded a guess as to why that freelancing might take place, and it doesn’t say much for the focus of a senior-laden defense that features numerous pro prospects has displayed thus far.

“We have vets on this team, so we’re all trying to just make plays, because the NFL is on everybody’s minds. Everybody on our defense, we’re all trying to get there,” Commings said. “A lot of times when you think about that, you try to overdo things and just make plays that you shouldn’t try to make.”

Whatever the reason for the early lapses, the Bulldogs typically have improved as the games progress. Their 3.86-points-allowed average in the third quarter is their best of any, and they surrender an average of just 73.4 yards in the fourth quarter -- 20 fewer than the next-closest quarter.

So Grantham is getting the strong finishes that he desired. And it helps that he will get the best closer on his roster -- All-American outside linebacker Jarvis Jones, who single-handedly clinched a win against Missouri by forcing two key fourth-quarter turnovers near the Tigers’ goal line -- back from injury this weekend.

The injuries and suspensions that have caused Grantham to use seven different starting lineups in seven games certainly have had an effect on the Bulldogs’ defensive continuity, as well, but Jones believes his group can return to its earlier form simply by playing fundamentally focused defense.

“We’ve just got to refocus ourselves and just humble down and just keep it to where guys are doing their job and just executing,” Jones said. “We’ve got the same guys, we do the same stuff, outside of Coach Grantham and the coaches creating new plays and things like that.

“But I think for us, we’ve just got to hone in and be the team we were last year or even better. I think if we do that and just go back to the basics of the mindset of just dominating play by play, I think we can definitely be that dominating team again.”