Georgia senior inside linebacker Monty Rice is a key piece of Georgia’s defense, which is a unit that’s regarded as one of the best in the country.
The Bulldogs have the numbers to back up those claims, too. Through three games, Georgia boasts the No. 1 rush defense in the country (38.3 ypg), the No. 5 ranked scoring defense (12.3 ppg) and No. 2 ranked total defense.
Last night’s second half performance against Tennessee showed why they are one of the best units in the nation. The Bulldogs forced Tennessee quarterback, Jarrett Guarantano, to commit three turnovers in the second half, with one of them leading to a touchdown.
Rice was the lone recipient of the only Georgia defensive touchdown of the night.
With 10:06 left in the contest, the Bulldogs blitzed on third-and-five with Rice bursting through the line of scrimmage unblocked. As Guarantano reared back to throw, Rice stripped the ball from his hands and recovered the fumble. He then returned it for six for Georgia’s final score of the night to give then a 43-21 lead. Placekicker Jake Podlesny came on and connected on the PAT to cement the final score at 44-21.
Rice was very proud of his accomplishment after the game.
“That was my first sack since my sophomore year,” Rice said in his postgame press conference. “It was a great call by coach Lanning and we work on that path a lot. I actually don’t rep third down a whole lot, but when we get the chance to be able to do it, and execute it at a high level. And it just goes to show, like even if you’re not in, pay attention to the reps because you never when you might get in the game.”
Rice said it had been a while since he had scored a touchdown.
“Man, I hadn’t scored a touchdown since I was a senior in high school against Hoover (High),” Rice said. “Actually it was against George Pickens. We blocked a punt and my homebody Jeremy blocked the punt. I picked it up and scored. That was the last time I scored a touchdown. But it was a surreal feeling and I kinda cried a little bit. Because you know – it’s just crazy and it felt like a movie or something.”
Against Tennessee, it wasn’t a matter of the defense bailing out the offense, but the two playing together. Georgia’s defense gave up 14 points in the first half on two blown coverages where Guarantano found receiver Josh Palmer twice for long strikes. Defensive backs DJ Daniel and Tyson Campbell were the defenders of that pair touchdown passes.
Georgia’s offense however gave up the other touchdown on the second play of the game when center Trey Hill snapped the ball over quarterback Stetson Bennett‘s head. That resulted in Tennesse recovering the botched snap in the endzone for six.
Still trailing 21-17 at halftime, it didn’t seem like the Bulldogs were ever out of it. Besides those two blown coverage plays, Georgia looked pretty solid on the defensive side of the ball in the first half. Although, momentum sort of shifted Tennesse’s way when the offense wasn’t able to score on the final play of the half from the one-yard line.
“You feel so bad going into halftime, getting stopped on fourth-and-one on the goal line, and also spotting them the points we spotted them,” Bennett said. “But they really didn’t stop us in the first half. We still scored 17 points and we just had to keep our heads up.”
Rice said all the team did was move on from their first half mistakes.
“They hadn’t done much. We snapped the ball over our heads, we gave them a touchdown,” he said. “We ended up not getting it on fourth down in the second quarter. They just snapped the ball and threw it up; (Tennessee quarterback) Jarrett (Guarantano) made a great throw, the receiver played the ball well—nothing you can do about that. It’s a you-can’t-flinch mentality. That’s all. Next play.”
During the Vols first drive of the second half, Georgia’s Azeez Ojulari blew around the edge and stripped Guarantano of the ball on third-and-long. The redshirt sophomore outside linebacker recovered the fumble. which gave the offense great field position as it ended with another Podlesny made attempt.
“It was pretty big, man,” Ojulari said. “We needed that coming back from halftime and we definitely needed that shift of momentum for the game. That put the offense in great field position to get some points on the board for sure. It was just a big moment – it was great.”
On Tennessee’s very next drive, Guarantano was pressure by and heaved up a pass that was intercepted by cornerback Eric Stokes. That interception was Stokes’ second of the season, and it again set up the offense in great field position at Tennessee 36-yard line. The offense failed to convert and it led to a Podlesny 51-yard field goal, which was the longest of his career.
That put the Bulldogs in the lead 23-21 and they never looked back. The offense’s rhythm finally started to click and the defense continued dominate, especially on the line of scrimmage. Tennessee never really could get anything going after those consecutive turnovers.
“We definitely feed off each other’s energy,” Ojulari said. “So when anyone is making big plays it boosts up other teammates and all of our players. It just gets everyone going and hyped up. They are ready to get out there and execute.”
The Bulldogs have only given up 37 total points this season, and have dominated teams in the second half. The unit has only given up a combined six total points in the second half of games this season so far. That in itself is a pretty incredible stat.
Rice was asked on Saturday night if he thought that Georgia’s defense was the best in the country, and he didn’t budge giving away his opinion.
“That’s not really for me to decide. That’s for y’all to decide,” Rice said. “That’s why you’re the media. But we just play hard, continue to play hard. I don’t really get into politics and all that, because politics are crooked anyway. I’ll let y’all politic on that and decide that because when we give up big plays or don’t play as well, it’ll be going the other way. It’s smiling in your face and stabbing you in the back. I’ll let y’all do that. We’re just going to keep getting better.”
It seems like Kirby Smart has instilled that philosophy in them, and it shows on the field when watching this team.
Rice said that every guy, especially the leaders, have that mentality that improvement can be always achieved.
“Composure is contagious,” Rice said. “..Nobody in our room suck. We have so many guys all over that locker room that can start anywhere in the country.”