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UGA has been one of the toughest defenses in the country to score against through five games this season.

By the Numbers: Vanderbilt game another chance for UGA to show off lethal defense

Brandon Adams

Georgia football fans can get their statistical fix each week with By the Numbers — a stats-based look at how UGA coach Kirby Smart is doing in his attempt to keep the Bulldogs on top of the SEC and continue the program’s pursuit of a national championship. This week’s edition of By the Numbers looks at Georgia’s defense.

Georgia is on the short list of national championship contenders for a few reasons, but nothing has been more crucial to UGA’s success this season than its defense — specifically its ability to limit big plays.

The Bulldogs enter the Vanderbilt game Saturday No. 1 in defensive efficiency according to ESPN’s Football Power Index. This result is certainly partially attributed to the fact that Georgia’s only allowed four plays this season of 20 yards or more — no team has allowed fewer. In fact, UGA is also No. 1 in the country in limiting explosive plays according to Football Study Hall’s points per possession metric.

The Bulldogs success in this area has been keyed by a few players seeming emerging as stars. Deandre Baker continues to essentially cut off half the field for opposing offenses with his ability to play a lock-down style at cornerback. Pro Football Focus gives Baker an overall grade of 90.4 for the season, and while admittedly I don’t have the slightest clue what that means, it’s the highest grade of any cornerback in the country. Pro Football Focus also says Baker’s yielding a passer rating of just 29.0 when targeted this season. That’s also kind of a difficult stat to wrap our minds around, but it checks out with what most of us have seen with our own eyes. Baker is simply one of the best cornerbacks UGA’s had in a long time, and he makes it really hard for opposing offenses to score.

However, as good as he’s been, he hasn’t arguably been the Bulldogs’ best defensive player thus far this season. ESPN recently awarded its so-called September MVP to the unit’s other D’Andre — outside linebacker D’Andre Walker for his work leading the team in sacks (4), tackles for loss (5) and quarterback hurries (8).

The tandem of Baker and Walker will be crucial again for Georgia against Vanderbilt. The Commodores are always an opponent that’s tempting to overlook (only covering the spread once in its last nine SEC games), but Vandy presents a potentially dangerous passing offense.

Commodores quarterback Kyle Shurmur is third in the SEC in passing yards per game (246.2). Vanderbilt’s also third in the SEC in passing plays of 10 or more yards with 53.

Attempting to shut down Shurmur brings to mind UGA’s earlier attempt at trying to stop Missouri quarterback Drew Lock — something the Bulldogs did pretty well when they played the Tigers in September, holding Lock without a touchdown and  just 4.6 yards per attempt. However, the success vs. Lock seemingly came with a price. Georgia also allowed 172 yards rushing to the Tigers — 64 yards more than UGA’s per-game average.

Yielding rushing yards shouldn’t be a problem against Vanderbilt though. The Commodores are next-to-last in the SEC with 163.2 yards per game. But stopping Shurmur without surrendering anything to the Commodores on the ground is a great tune up for what lies ahead for UGA.

The Bulldogs next four opponents are all currently ranked in the AP Top 25 — including next week’s opponent, No. 5 LSU. Only one of those contests — Auburn on Nov. 10 — will be at home.

Georgia will lean heavily on its defense in those games, a unit that’s established a brand as one of the stingiest in the country. But before it goes on the road for the stretch run, it’ll show off Baker, Walker and the rest of its stifling defense for the home fans Saturday night.