ATHENS — It’s one of the worst feelings in football, and one of the inherent risks of playing defensive back.
Your job is to make sure, above all else, that these fleet-footed wide receivers don’t get behind the defense. When they do, you’re left to make the run of shame. That is, you can’t just stop and stand where you were beaten. You must run behind as a conquered foe, trailing hopelessly behind the triumphant wideout as he strides into the end zone.
That happened twice to the Georgia Bulldogs in their last game. Each time, Missouri’s Emanuel Hall cruised untouched into the end zone with UGA’s defensive backs chasing helplessly behind. He had two 63-yard touchdowns in the first half against Georgia. As a result, the Tigers were tied 21-all midway through the second quarter.
Senior cornerback Aaron Davis was left to make the run of shame after that first one. That does not, however, mean that the touchdown was his fault.
“It was just a communication issue between us three, me, [nickelback] Tyrique [McGhee] and [safety] J.R. Reed,” Davis said Monday. “So, it’s just something we’ve got to clean up and make sure we’re all on the same page so those kinds of things don’t happen again.”
That will be especially important this Saturday in Jacksonville. The No. 3-ranked Bulldogs (7-0, 4-0 SEC) face the Florida Gators (3-3, 3-2) in their annual scrum along the St. Johns River.
While Florida’s offense has often found itself the butt of many jokes this year — it’s ranked in the bottom half of the league the last two seasons — one thing the Gators have shown is the ability to make at least some chunk plays in the passing game.
Entering the game Saturday at EverBank Field, Florida has recorded 14 plays pass plays of 20 or more yards (which ranks 13th in the SEC), including four of more than 40 yards (ninth in SEC). You may remember one of them. Redshirt freshman quarterback Feleipe Franks connected with Tyrie Cleveland for a 63-yard, game-winning TD pass as time expired to beat Tennessee 26-20 on Sept. 16.
Including all plays, scoring or otherwise, the Gators have gained 20 or more yards 24 times. Georgia’s defenders label those as “explosive plays.” And giving up those plays is the supreme no-no on any defense.
“They have tremendous wideouts,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said Monday. “They’ve probably got the best wideout group we’ve faced, combined with the fact that their quarterback has one of the strongest arms I’ve ever seen. I knew Feleipe well in high school. I recruited him, so I know the arm talent that he has. I mean, they have tape. They saw the Missouri game.”
Georgia has spent a lot of time going over that videotape as well. While the Tigers’ two deep balls look incredibly similar, the breakdowns weren’t the same. In the first instance, the Bulldogs were in a two-deep zone and Davis thought he had help over the top. But Reed, a first-year starter, was slow getting outside the hash marks after being drawn to a post route that was already double-covered over the middle.
On the second, Georgia was in “thirds coverage.” McGhee was simply blown past in a 1-on-1 matchup, and safety Dominick Sanders did not get over to help in time.
Those are scenarios that the Bulldogs have gone over and over in the days since.
“That’s something we go over every game; Florida’s no different,” said Davis, a senior with 37 career starts. “We just know that they’ve had a lot of big plays this year as far as explosive passes. It’s something they stress in their offense, something they look for and count on every single game. So that’s something that we have to pay attention to.”
That’s especially important considering the dynamics of the game this year between these two traditional SEC East powers. Florida’s championship hopes essentially have been dashed, and will be unequivocally with a loss to the Bulldogs. Basically, the Gators have nothing to lose.
As for Franks, he’s not quite as well known in these parts and is a work and progress, but he has shown great potential. The 6-foot-5, 227-pound quarterback from Crawfordville, Fla., was a 4-star prospect and Elite 11 finalist coming out of high school. He began the season as the starter, later lost the job to senior Luke Del Rio, but was pressed back into starting duty after Del Rio went down with a shoulder injury.
The Gators’ offensive cause hasn’t been helped by the loss of their top two playmaking threats. Both wide receiver Antonio Callaway and running back Jordan Scarlett are among those players suspended for the credit-card fraud scandal that has ensnared the team.
But as always, Florida has plenty of speed an athleticism to turn to. Brandon Powell (16-149) and Cleveland (15-326) lead four receivers with 11 or more catches, and 14 different players have caught passes for the Gators.
Between the fact that Georgia looks most vulnerable in that area and that Florida has some proficiency in that area, look for the Gators to try to attack vertically.
That’s what the Bulldogs are expecting.
“We know what we’re in for,” Smart said. “We have to do a good job covering those guys. The toughest part is they’re a lot more physical up front and bigger than, say, Missouri was. So it’s going to be a task. We’ve got to do a tremendous job defensively against a good quarterback and a group of wideouts that are very talented.”
As always, Georgia can’t be overly guarded against the deep ball. In each of the last three games, the Gators won by running the ball more effectively. They have that capability as well. Freshman Malik Davis has burst onto the scene this season and leads Florida with 506 yards rushing. He has also caught 6 passes.
But the key for the Bulldogs this Saturday is keeping all those playmakers in front of them.
“They’ve shown that they can take the top off of defenses this year,” Davis said. “So we’ve got to do a good job as far as communicating and being sharp and being good on our techniques to not give up those plays.”