ATHENS, Ga. — Silver linings, anyone?
Well, one silver lining in particular. But it’s one that should last beyond this 2019 Missouri football season.
The Tigers entered Georgia on Saturday with the fourth-best pass defense in the country by yards allowed per game. The reason for skepticism, because there always is one: They hadn’t played against any great arms at quarterback. Jake Fromm was the defense’s first real test. He’s an elite quarterback.
And even in defeat, Missouri’s secondary was more elite.
“There’s a reason they’re ranked top 15 in the country in almost every defensive category,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said.
Missouri’s 27-0 loss to Georgia had plenty of frustrating elements. But rather than only dwelling on another empty performance in an increasingly disappointing season, it’s worth considering how good the (largely young) secondary played for the most part. Fromm, who was 20-for-30 with 279 yards against top-10 Florida last week, was held to 173 yards this time while completing fewer than half his passes (13-for-29).
“Fromm is such a savvy, really experienced, competitive dude that can make every throw,” MU coach Barry Odom said. “And I thought our corners held up. I thought our safeties did nice in coverage. I thought for the most part, you’d always like to get a couple back, but I thought they played with an aggressive nature in the way that they covered.”
Odom said the Tigers played a lot of man cover three, and the defensive backs weren’t too perturbed by Georgia’s athleticism.
“(The safeties) do a really good job of following your eyes,” Fromm said. “They play a lot of single high safety. You’re supposed to kind of stay in the middle of the field, but for them, they’re all over the place.”
Cornerback Jarvis Ware and safety Khalil Oliver had seven tackles each; safety Tyree Gillespie had six; safety Josh Bledsoe had five; and cornerback Christian Holmes had four. And the tackles weren’t the most important part.
Missouri’s secondary stumbled on Georgia’s first series, which went for a touchdown. But after that, the defensive backs settled into the game perfectly. They had several ‘wow’ moments that kept the game within reach until late, even while the offense didn’t provide any support.
“They did a good job staying on our guys for a little while,” Fromm said. “Sooner or later, we’re just going to make a play on offense.”
First, there was Georgia’s second possession. On third-and-5 around midfield, MU cornerback DeMarkus Acy was over the top but adjusted to make an impressive pass breakup from behind on a throw over the middle. The Bulldogs punted.
Georgia drove to the 3-yard line early in the second quarter, but Acy was in coverage again on a third-and-goal incompletion. The Dawgs kicked a 20-yard field goal.
Acy may be a senior, but almost everyone else in the Missouri secondary is returning. It may still be Week 9 for the Tigers, but it’s never too early to start thinking about next year, right?
Take Gillespie, one of two starting safeties. Both he and Bledsoe are juniors. Gillespie made one of the best defensive plays of the game in the third quarter. Georgia had third-and-2 at the Missouri 12, and Fromm placed a perfect throw toward the back of the end zone, but Gillespie got in the way moving backward for a pass breakup. The Dawgs kicked a 29-yard field goal.
Bend-don’t-break was a common theme for the defense; Georgia got into scoring range several times but had to attempt five field goals. Not bad, considering UGA is the No. 3 team in the country in red zone efficiency.
“We’ve played these guys (the last) three years,” Smart said, “and I swear we’ve got 28 field goals in three years.”
On Georgia’s first of the second half, Ware spoiled a great drive with fantastic third-down coverage in the end zone. The Bulldogs missed a field goal that time. Ware is a sophomore. He’ll be back.
“We held Fromm from doing a lot of things that he usually does,” Ware said.
Gillespie also showed an impressive ability in the safety blitz. He almost blew up Fromm at one point.
“Pretty close,” Fromm said. “We know they have that in their package.”
The secondary wasn’t perfect, of course. It had its miscues. Georgia converted two third-downs en route to its opening-drive touchdown, with a complete coverage breakdown on the scoring play. Twice on third downs during the first quarter, Fromm threw back-shoulder fades and Missouri’s men in coverage (Holmes and Gillespie) never turned their backs. Both went for big catches.
The Tigers generally avoided penalties in the secondary, too, but Ware was flagged for a big pass interference in the end zone that led to Georgia’s only second-half touchdown. Ware called the touchdown “really a cheap one, if you know what I’m saying.”
Perhaps Missouri’s most interesting tactical move was playing three cornerbacks at a time for some plays. Ware and Holmes have battled for the second starting spot all year alongside Acy, but they were all on the field together sometimes Saturday.
“With the extra DB, we needed someone who could run,” Gillespie said. “No mismatches everywhere, so just line up and play ball.”
They did, and at the end of the night, the clutch play-making ability in the secondary stood out as the biggest positive that kept the Tigers in the game. It should keep them in plenty of games to come next year, too.
“We hit some long foul balls,” Smart said.