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Georgia's defensive line has improved greatly since the 2018 season.

Georgia’s improved run defense is why you shouldn’t panic if it falls behind

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Georgia football rush defense a big reason Bulldogs have been so dominant in the second half

At the start of the second quarter, there was a real sense of dread in the Georgia fan base. The Bulldogs found themselves trailing in the first half for the second consecutive game, as Tennessee had just taken a 14-10 lead. The Bulldogs were a massive favorite against the Volunteers, but this was a rivalry game after all. And Georgia was a multi-touchdown favorite against Notre Dame, but that contest managed to be a one-score game.

Of course, then Georgia did what Georgia has always done this season. It choked the life out of the Volunteers as the game went on and the Bulldogs scored the final 33 points of the contest to cruise to a 43-14 win. The Georgia pass defense adjusted in the second half, as it allowed only 68 passing yards.

But the real reason why Tennessee wasn’t able to sustain its lead or hang around in the game longer wasn’t because Georgia made some adjustments to limit the Tennessee passing attack. It was because its rushing game never allowed the Tennessee offense to sustain drives and keep the potent Georgia offense off the field.

The Volunteers finished with only 70 rushing yards and 40 of those came on the final drive when Georgia had put in its second string. It was the fourth straight game where the Bulldogs held an opponent under 100 rushing yards.

And a deeper look at the numbers show if the Georgia rush defense is dominant like it was on Saturday and has been for the entire season, the Bulldogs quite simply aren’t going to lose.

Dating back to the start of the 2017 season, Georgia is 29-0 when it finishes with more rushing yards than its opponent. When opponents outrush Georgia, the Bulldogs are 0-5.

In those five defeats, each opposing team rushed for at least 150 yards. In only one of those same five losses has Georgia been held under 100 rushing yards in a game. So the Georgia rush offense is going to roll up yards on the ground pretty much regardless of the opponent.

So the wins and losses really come down to whether or not the defense can continue to stifle the other team’s rushing attack.

“Really it starts up front with us,” Georgia defensive lineman Michael Barnett said. “We just have to hold the points and read blocks and making sure nothing comes in our gaps and making sure we push everything that’s supposed to come on the inside to the outside and let the outside defenders handle what they’ve got to handle. I feel like I did pretty good [this season] but there’s always room for improvement.”

And the 2019 defense, so far, is stopping opposing ground games at a far better rate. The Bulldogs rank fifth in the country in rushing yards allowed per game at 59.6 yards per game. In 2017 — when Georgia won the SEC — it ranked 20th in the country in that statistic. In 2018, the defense slipped to 31st in the country.

A veteran defensive line, led by the likes of Barnett, Tyler Clark, Malik Herring and Jordan Davis, is a big reason why the Bulldogs have much such a leap in this department. Last season, Georgia defensive linemen produced only 19.5 tackles for loss. Through only 5 games this year, that same group has 9.5 tackles for loss.

Davis is thought to be the superstar of the group, given his massive 6-foot-6, 33o pound frame allows him to eat blocks while displaying a surprising quickness for someone of his size. That’s what made his injury on the second play of the Tennessee game such a concern. Davis did not return to the game as he suffered a left ankle sprain.

But the rush defense didn’t fall off without him. Georgia gave up a 16-yard run on the play before Davis got hurt. Meaning for the rest of the game in which the first-team defense would’ve been on the field, Georgia gave up only 14 rushing yards.

“I didn’t see a huge difference when he wasn’t out there because the things he impacts are the run game, and we were able to control the run game pretty well,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. “The play he was in there, we actually had a run come out. We would play a run right early when he was in there and fit it a lot more right as the game went on.”

Related: Georgia football coach Kirby Smart delivers encouraging news on injured starters

Davis returned to practice this week and things are looking more and more like he might be ready to play against a South Carolina team that is statistically the best rushing team the Bulldogs will have faced to this point in the season.

Some might point out that the Bulldogs haven’t faced a top 50-rushing team yet this season. But Georgia isn’t exactly going to face very many elite rushing teams down the stretch run of its season either. Auburn is the only team on Georgia’s schedule that ranks in the top 30 in rushing yards per game and the Tigers just lost their top running back for several weeks due to a knee injury.

The Gamecocks rank 38th in the country in rushing yards per game and split backfield carries between seniors Rico Dowdle and Tavien Feaster.

As for one more stat to really hammer the point home, Georgia is the only team in the country to not yet give up a rushing touchdown.

“It’s not letting anybody in our endzone,” Senior safety J.R. Reed said on the difference between last season and this season’s rushing defense. “Doesn’t matter what drill we’re doing, we don’t want them in the endzone. The offense likes to finish in the endzone and usually finish it by running, so we just have to stop them from doing it.”

Obviously there’s a slim chance that holds up for the whole season. But if you want to play for championships, limiting rushing touchdowns is a good way to get there. In 2017, Georgia and Alabama combined to give up just 17 rushing touchdowns. Last season Clemson and Alabama allowed a combined 19 rushing touchdowns.

By comparison, Georgia gave up 18 rushing touchdowns last year.

Smart knows that level of success isn’t sustainable throughout the season, especially as teams wear down due to the weekly grind.

That’s why this week he’s actually been fairly critical of how his team has performed in stopping the run.

“We have to be a better tackling team. That comes from perimeter runs from running backs. So I’m not pleased with how we have played, as far as contact and contact toughness,” Smart said. “We have to improve on that and get better because that’s a hole when you watch football in general, tackling tends to go downhill as the season goes, and we can’t let that happen.”

So at some point during the coming weeks, Georgia might find itself trailing in-game. And if you think Georgia might be in real trouble or real danger of losing, take a deep breath and go look at the rushing stats for the game.

If an opposing team is consistently gashing the Bulldogs, then you might actually have a reason to worry. But if the Georgia run defense continues to play as it has so far this season, then it’s all much ado about nothing.

Georgia football linebacker Walter Grant on Georgia run defense

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