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Richt expects more shootouts as defense struggles

Coach Mark Richt expected his defense to endure growing pains this season.

Fortunately for the Bulldogs, the offense has more than picked up the slack. After passing another big test with a 44-41 win over LSU, Georgia (3-1, 2-0 SEC) will try to make progress defensively Saturday at Tennessee.

“Every game’s gonna be a barnburner ‘til we really get more stout on defense and continue to get our special teams in order,” Richt said.

Georgia ranks last in the SEC in scoring defense, giving up 32.5 points per game.

“Somewhere down the line, it’s gonna catch up to us if we continue to give up big points like that,” Georgia freshman cornerback Brendan Langley said.

Don’t expect that to come Saturday at Tennessee. The Volunteers (3-2, 0-1 SEC) are rebuilding under first-year coach Butch Jones. Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray should be able to feast on Tennessee’s defense, which gives up 249.8 yards per game.

Richt is concerned about Tennessee’s deep, experienced line.

“This offensive line is the best I’ve seen this year,” Richt said. “I do think they’re the class of the league and maybe the country.”

After a loss to start the season at Clemson, Georgia can’t afford any more letdowns in order to reach its goal of returning to the SEC title game. Murray doesn’t expect a letdown to happen against the Vols.

“We have a lot of momentum,” Murray said. “I think the biggest thing is that we have great leadership, and our leaders are really going to have to step up right now and make sure guys are staying focused. We’ve been practicing our tails off, just getting after it, working and training hard, staying very focused in meetings and on the field. I think that’s why we’ve been successful, because we are putting the work in right now.”

PLAYERS TO WATCH:

—QB Aaron Murray continues to put up big passing numbers. Murray was named SEC player of the week after completing 20 of 34 passes for 298 yards and four touchdowns. Murray also added a rushing TD against the Tigers. Murray leads the SEC in passing at 334.5 yards per game, with 11 TDs and three interceptions.

—WR Justin Scott-Wesley is emerging as a favorite target for Murray. Scott-Wesley caught Georgia’s go-ahead touchdown pass, a 25-yarder, in the Bulldogs’ 44-41 win over LSU. Scott-Wesley has a team-high 289 yards receiving and two TDs.

—K Marshall Morgan has made the most of his second chance. Suspended the first two games of the season because of a summer BUI arrest, Morgan has made 4 of 5 field goal attempts, including a big 55-yarder last Saturday at LSU that helped Morgan earn SEC special teams player of the week honors. The sophomore will be counted on to make more clutch kicks as the season progresses.

—S Josh Harvey-Clemons is starting to show signs of the five-star potential he displayed coming out of high school. Harvey-Clemons had a team-high 15 tackles, including 1.5 tackles for loss. Harvey-Clemons is third on the team with 27 tackles, which includes 2.5 for loss, and he has one forced fumble.

SERIES HISTORY: Tennessee leads 21-19-2, including a 51-44 loss in 2012.

QUOTE TO NOTE: “Collectively, they know what they’re doing and they’re very good football players. They’re good route runners, and they’re good at knowing what to do. They work well as a team, and they have a quarterback that really understands it all.” — coach Mark Richt, on the success of Georgia’s offense and senior QB Aaron Murray this season.

GAME BREAKDOWN

Scouting the running game: Georgia ranks eighth in the SEC in rushing offense, averaging 209 yards per game and 4.8 yards per carry. The Bulldogs received a scare when starting RB Todd Gurley suffered an injured ankle in the LSU game, but backup RB Keith Marshall picked up the slack, rushing for 96 yards on 20 carries. Georgia is getting a strong push up front, which has helped open up holes in the run game throughout the season.

Scouting the passing game: It’s hard to imagine Georgia throwing the ball much better than it has through the first four games. The Bulldogs rank second in the SEC in pass offense (345 yards per game) and first in pass efficiency (193.4). Even with a season-ending injury to WR Malcolm Mitchell, Georgia hasn’t missed a beat. Chris Conley, Michael Bennett and Justin Scott-Wesley have all stepped up. Coach Mark Richt also gave credit to Georgia’s pass protection, which has improved since QB Aaron Murray was sacked four times against Clemson.

Scouting the run defense: Georgia has played better against the run of late. The Bulldogs rank sixth in the SEC in run defense, allowing 126.8 yards per game and 3.5 yards per carry. Georgia held standout LSU tailback Jeremy Hill to 86 yards on 21 carries.

Scouting the pass defense: Georgia continues to have coverage breakdowns in its young secondary. During the LSU game, CB Damian Swann was spotted throwing his hands up in the air, unsure of proper coverage schemes. LSU QB Zach Mettenberger torched the Bulldogs for 372 yards and three TDs. The Bulldogs have recorded just one interception this season, from freshman S Tray Matthews.

Richt said new NCAA targeting rules have had an effect on how his safeties have played in coverage. Under the rule, defensive players can be ejected if they hit defenseless players above the shoulders. “There were a couple of balls thrown down the middle where, quite frankly, our safeties in my opinion have been coached so hard on this targeting rule that they’re not sure what to do when they get there,” Richt said on his weekly radio show. “A couple of times they were there and they didn’t know what to do or how to. I mean, we teach them, but when you’re used to doing something a certain way you’re whole career, then all of the sudden you’re trying to play in such a way that you don’t get this foul and get thrown out of the game, there’s a moment of truth there where we didn’t pull the trigger. We need to continue to play aggressively without breaking any rules.”

Scouting the special teams: P Collin Barber is putting together an outstanding season, averaging 48 yards per punt with four downed inside the 20-yard line. K Marshall Morgan is 4 of 5 on field goal attempts, including 1 of 2 from 50 yards or more. The Bulldogs have yet to record a big punt or kick return this season. Freshman WR Reggie Davis has averaged a team-high 17 yards on three kickoff returns.

ROSTER REPORT:

—RB Todd Gurley remains day-to-day and is questionable for the Tennessee game after suffering a sprained left ankle against LSU. If Gurley can’t go, coach Mark Richt said he’s confident in RB Keith Marshall, who is coming off a 97-yard performance against LSU. “He’s very capable of carrying the load,” Richt said. “You talk about carrying the load with 15 or 20 carries, he could do it.”

—FB Quayvon Hicks and FB Merritt Hall will stage a “healthy” competition this week, Richt said. He expects both to play against Tennessee.

—QB Aaron Murray is 99 yards shy of passing fellow Georgia quarterback David Greene as the SEC’s all-time passing leader. He should break the mark Saturday at Tennessee. Murray is at 11,429 passing yards. “It’s definitely an honor,” Murray said. “It’s crazy to think about. I’ve never been a guy who’s worried about stats — it’s all about winning, winning, winning — but it’s definitely an honor to be alongside some of those guys like Greene and (Florida QB Danny) Wuerffel, guys who did some unbelievable things while they were at their colleges.”