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September 27, 2007

Richt wants stronger fourth-quarter stands

Jeff Owens or Corvey Irvin?

Kade Weston or Geno Atkins?

Brandon Miller or Akeem Dent?

It hardly matters, says Mark Richt. The Georgia coach says there's little difference between the defensive starters and top backups at many spots, including defensive tackles Owens, Irvin, Weston, Atkins and Jarius Wynn, and the outside linebacker spot shared by Miller and Dent.

Richt says the depth has allowed coaches to substitute freely, and that should be a strength as No. 15 Georgia prepares to face Mississippi on Saturday.

"I think we have substituted better this year than we have in a while at most positions," Richt said. "The majority of our team has the depth to sub with the second guy coming in and playing as well as the first-team guy in many cases."

Georgia's deepest positions include cornerback, linebacker, defensive end and defensive tackle.

Richt's concern is that a Georgia defense that should be fresh late in games has allowed long fourth-quarter drives in a loss to South Carolina and last week's 26-23 overtime win at Alabama.

The overtime provided Georgia's highlight of the season thus far when Matthew Stafford threw the game-winning touchdown pass to Mikey Henderson.

Richt celebrated the win but didn't forget his defense could have avoided overtime by stopping Alabama's two long scoring drives in the fourth quarter.

Georgia led 20-10 before Alabama's 13-play, 61-yard drive for a field goal, followed by a 10-play, 88-yard touchdown drive that ended with only 1:09 left in regulation.

Two weeks earlier, South Carolina protected a 16-12 lead by taking the ball with 4:42 left and working more than 3 minutes off the clock on a six-play, 40-yard drive. The possession started with runs of 15, 12 and 11 yards that kept the clock moving.

Richt said he's looking for ways to help the defense make stronger fourth-quarter stands.

"We've been talking about that," Richt said. "You want to make sure you're fresh when the time comes. I don't think that was an issue.

"You want to make sure you're not calling anything different in that drive than you were all night long when you had success."

Georgia gave up long passes of 22 and 43 yards in Alabama's fourth-quarter scoring drives.

"Giving up the big play, of course, is huge, and it might be an attitude thing," Richt said. "I'm going to challenge them. I'm going to challenge the defense this week on that very point. ... We've got to finish."

Richt and defensive coordinator Willie Martinez have tried different combinations at the three linebacker spots.

Marcus Washington, a junior, made his first career start at middle linebacker against Alabama and set a personal high with eight tackles. With Washington in the middle, Dannell Ellerbe moved outside and had eight stops.

Washington said fatigue was not a factor in the fourth-quarter defensive breakdowns against Alabama.

"They came out with a couple incompletions and then they got a long pass down the sideline," Washington said, referring to the 43-yard pass on the 88-yard touchdown drive. "It was a mental error.

"It was a chance for us to end the game out there and prevent us from going to overtime. ... We need to prevent our opponents from getting big plays, whether it's a long pass or a long run."

The next challenge for Georgia's defense is Ole Miss quarterback Seth Adams, who passed for 302 yards -- including a 77-yard scoring toss to Mike Wallace -- in last week's 30-24 loss to Florida.

Richt and Martinez will continue with their heavy substitutions.

Richt said the increased danger of players losing starting jobs is not used by the coaches for added motivation. He said the true advantage of the improved depth is "the reality of if you know you're going to play, you tend to practice better."

"When you sub you have better morale," Richt said. "It's a better chance of keeping everybody healthy, a better chance of keeping everybody fresh."



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