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ATHENS, Ga. – Amarlo Herrera believes that Georgia's defense isn't nearly as bad as its numbers suggest.
Problem is the near meltdowns that occurred in narrow wins over LSU and Tennessee finally brought the Bulldogs down in last week's home loss to Missouri.
"It's been bad," Herrera said on Tuesday. "We want to win. We play defense so we don't like giving up points. We've just to work on that."
When the No. 15 Bulldogs (4-2, 3-1 Southeastern Conference) visit Vanderbilt (3-3, 0-3 SEC) on Saturday, coach Mark Richt hopes they can finally begin to build some momentum.
And the best way to do that is creating turnovers, a problem that's haunted Georgia all season.
The defense has just one interception this year, by safety Tray Matthews against North Texas. And of the Bulldogs' four fumble recoveries, two came on special teams.
Georgia ranks 117th in takeaways,105th in scoring and 97th in third-down efficiency, but Richt believes the defense is still evolving after losing nine players to the NFL during the offseason.
Of the 10 true freshmen who have played defense this year, seven have started. The Bulldogs also have used six veteran first-time starters on defense.
"We can't lose any kind of hope or faith, and there's enough progress going on that I still feel very comfortable that we're moving in the right direction with a lot of pups," Richt said. "There are a lot of good things happening."
Since Kedric Golston in 2002, Georgia had not started a true freshman on defense under Richt until this year's opener when Matthews, outside linebacker Leonard Floyd and cornerback Brendan Langley played in the loss at Clemson.
The abundant youth has likely affected how many halftime adjustments defensive coordinator Todd Grantham can make.
In beating No. 6 South Carolina in the second game, Georgia allowed 24 points in the first half but just six in the final two quarters, but that's the best the Bulldogs have done against top competition.
Clemson, LSU and Tennessee combined to score an average of nearly 21 points in the second half. In last week's 41-26 home loss to Missouri, the Bulldogs held the Tigers without a point in the third quarter, but gave up 13 in the fourth.
Richt, though, put a positive spin on the Missouri game.
"I thought in the second half that the defense really did a good job of giving the offense a chance to dig back in that game," he said. "With 4:12 to go, we're a drive away from tying the game and putting it into overtime, so there were some good things that happened, without a doubt. We just have to keep getting better."
Herrera acknowledged the frustration that's settled in after Georgia has forced opponents in third-and-long situations, only to give up a big play that keeps the drive alive.
"We're just not getting off the field on third down," Herrera said. "The pressure isn't getting there quick enough, and sometimes it's just not good coverage."
Herrera wouldn't say anything negative about the secondary, which has just one longtime starter in cornerback Damian Swann, but it's clear the young defensive backs are still figuring out how to accurately read formations, use the correct techniques and make plays when the ball is in the air.
But the Bulldogs are showing progress in other areas. Their pass rush, led by Floyd and left end Ray Drew, has produced 13 sacks in the last three games, and the run defense ranks fourth in the SEC.
Against Vanderbilt, Georgia will face an offense that's scored at least 28 points in 12 straight games. The Commodores are led by senior receiver Jordan Matthews, who ranks fourth in SEC career yards receiving. Vanderbilt put up 468 yards of total offense in its last game, a 51-28 home loss to Missouri two weeks ago.
"I think we're getting a little better at (third-and-long situations), and I think we're doing the right things, but we just have to execute better," Richt said. "Part of it is the learning curve of the young defensive backs. Let's face it — we're playing a bunch of rookies back there. It's tough to be great at it when you're just learning as you go."