ATHENS, Ga. — Georgia outside linebacker Chase Vasser admitted Tuesday that he grew up liking Georgia Tech, while Bulldogs inside linebacker Michael Gilliard was torn as a youngster between Miami and Florida State.
Yet each was impressed by the dominant Georgia defenses during the early Mark Richt years with the likes of Sean Jones, David Pollack, Thomas Davis and Greg Blue.
"Back in the '01 to '07 era, people knew when they played Georgia that their defense was a hard-hitting and flying-around defense," Vasser said. "We want to get back to that. We're striving to get there and bring back the old Dog days."
They seem to be on the right path.
With a convincing run the past month against Coastal Carolina, Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Tennessee, the Bulldogs have catapulted to sixth nationally in total defense, allowing 260.5 yards a game. Georgia has not finished a season with such an imposing average since 1973, when it allowed 258.8 yards.
The Bulldogs have not faced the greatest collection of opposing offenses since the opening duo of Boise State and South Carolina, and they still have Vanderbilt and Kentucky -- currently 117th and 119th in total offense among Bowl Subdivision teams -- left to play. Georgia plays at Vanderbilt this Saturday night.
"I don't want to get too excited yet, but I'm feeling like we've built a very good foundation on defense," Richt said. "I'm hoping the best is yet to come. If you can start out by stopping the running game, it's huge. We've done a really good job with that, which has allowed us to get people out of their game plan a little bit.
"We're also doing so much better on third downs, which was a big issue last year."
The Bulldogs not only are more comfortable in the second year of defensive coordinator Todd Grantham's 3-4 system, but they have strengthened at every level. The front has more size, the secondary has more experience and the linebackers have far exceeded expectations, especially after early-season injuries to the starting inside tandem of Alec Ogletree and Christian Robinson.
Gilliard and Amarlo Herrera replaced Ogletree and Robinson in the lineup, and Gilliard has compiled 36 tackles the past four weeks.
"Week in and week out, Coach Grantham has emphasized us being one of the best defenses in the country," Gilliard said. "Each week, our main goal is to get better, so on Saturday it will show."
The Bulldogs have allowed two defensive touchdowns since the first two games and essentially have relegated another goal from the preseason, winning the fourth quarter, temporarily moot. Georgia has been outscored 13-0 in the fourth quarter the past two weeks after building double-digit leads against Mississippi State and Tennessee.
Richt opted to milk the clock in each instance, which didn't go smoothly when Aaron Murray threw an interception for a touchdown against MSU and when the Bulldogs faced a third-and-56 last Saturday after driving into field-goal range.
"If you feel like your defense is taking care of business, you do tend to want to put it in their hands," Richt said. "You also tend to want to help them by chewing as much clock as possible. If the other team is having trouble scoring, you don't want to take a whole lot of risks offensively that would allow them to score defensively, like we did in the Mississippi State game when we threw that pick-six."
Said Murray: "It's definitely nice to know we don't have to score that many points and can slow the game down and really take time off the clock, but just because we have a great defense, we still want to score. We have a lot of firepower on offense."
Firepower that is being put on hold due to the other side of the ball.
"I like the direction we are going," Richt said. "I don't want to say that we are a dominating defense quite yet, but we're showing some good signs."
David Paschall is a sports writer for the Times Free Press. He started at the Chattanooga Free Press in 1990 and was part of the Times Free Press when the paper started in 1999. David covers University of Georgia football, as well as SEC football recruiting, SEC basketball, Chattanooga Lookouts baseball and other sports stories. He is a Chattanooga native and graduate of the Baylor School and Auburn University. David has received numerous honors for ...