ATHENS, Ga. — It doesn't require a great deal of technical football knowledge to see the difference in the Georgia defense in the last few weeks.
Most obviously and simply, Georgia is making the tackles that it missed only a few weeks ago.
In last Saturday night's 31-17 win at Georgia Tech, the Bulldogs held Tech's highly ranked offense to only 63 yards rushing and 242 total yards.
The week before against a Mississippi offense that ranked second in the Southeastern Conference in scoring, Georgia's defense was similarly impressive in a 35-15 win. The Rebels were held to a net of 28 yards rushing and 261 total yards.
Is Georgia tackling better?
"I don't think there's any doubt about it,'' said defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder before Monday's practice for Saturday's final regular-season game against Houston.
VanGorder said he and the other defensive assistants discussed the decline in missed tackles in meetings Monday.
"The missed tackles between Florida compared to the last two weeks are dramatically different,'' said VanGorder, who wouldn't release any numbers on missed tackles. "Poor tackling is a cancer on defense and we've been able to do better in that area.''
Through most of the season, VanGorder was most proud of his unit's effort in a 14-9 loss to South Carolina in the second week of the season. The last two weeks were the best efforts in consecutive games and have provided encouragement that the players have become more comfortable with VanGorder's defense and what he demands of players.
"I think we're playing better football and I think we're preparing better, with a better focus,'' he said. "That obviously has given us the momentum.''
The key to improved play has been improved practice.
"What you see out there is how we prepare in practice,'' said senior rover Jermaine Phillips. "I think it's the way we are practicing that's made the biggest difference.''
Now when VanGorder sends in a play, each player on defense has a better grasp of his responsibility.
"I think everybody knows now what to do and what their assignment is,'' Phillips said.
Said VanGorder: "As coaches, it has definitely been a big part of our mission statement to create a tempo in practice that carries over into the game.''
Georgia has not allowed as many as 30 points in a game this season, but after allowing big yards in midseason games against Kentucky, Florida and Auburn, there were concerns about the defense under VanGorder.
Now No. 16 Georgia ranks fourth in the Southeastern Conference and 24th in the nation in scoring defense, allowing 20.1 points per game. The Bulldogs rank third in the SEC and 19th in the nation with their average of 115.1 yards rushing allowed per game.
Coach Mark Richt is especially happy with the way VanGorder has devised schemes to combat the opponent's strength.
"That's about what I was expecting from Coach VanGorder when I hired him,'' Richt said. "He's not a guy who's gonna put a cookie-cutter defense out there. He does a great job, he along with our staff, of really dissecting what teams will do and taking away what they do best.''
The defense has stiffened late in the season even after losing starting defensive end Bruce Adrine to a season-ending knee injury and, in a more devastating loss, starting defensive tackle David Jacobs to a stroke.
The defensive line is left with very little depth, but still the plan is to have another week of physical practices.
"That is a tough thing in making that decision,'' VanGorder said. "That tempo issue is so important, you don't want to lose that edge.''
Charles Odum can be reached at CEOdum@aol.com.