ATHENS - Georgia's defense has allowed only one touchdown in two straight wins, giving Mark Richt confidence the unit is better prepared than last year to face Mississippi State's physical running game.
With its defense still learning the new 3-4 scheme installed by coordinator Todd Grantham, Georgia lost 24-12 at Mississippi State last season. Georgia's players said Tuesday the loss was a defining moment in a disappointing 6-7 season.
Georgia was hurt by two fumbles, including one by Washaun Ealey near the goal line.
But the defense couldn't place the full blame on mistakes, as quarterback Chris Relf and running back Vick Ballard helped Mississippi State rush for 179 yards on 44 carries.
"Mississippi State showed us we were not as physical as we should have been," outside linebacker and Chestatee High graduate Chase Vasser said Tuesday.
"It was a shock in a way. We knew they were very good. We thought we were good, too. They actually showed that we were not as good as we should have been. It actually helped us get better."
Relf and Ballard are back for Mississippi State (2-2 overall, 0-2 Southeastern Conference).
Richt said Tuesday that Georgia (2-2, 1-1) is better prepared on defense for the rematch.
"We definitely have one of those games where we better roll up our sleeves and get after it," Richt said.
"Thankfully, I think we've played more physical to this point than we did a year ago."
Georgia has gained momentum after allowing a combined 80 points in losses to Boise State and South Carolina to open the season.
The defense recovered by allowing only a combined 13 points in wins over Coastal Carolina and Mississippi.
Richt has said the 45-42 loss to South Carolina was misleading for his defense, because the Gamecocks scored on a fake punt, an interception return and a punt return and had another touchdown set up by a fumble.
Georgia took a 59-0 shutout of overmatched Coastal Carolina before holding Ole Miss to 183 total yards and one offensive touchdown while beating the Rebels 27-13 last week.
"We've had a couple of great games," Vasser said. "We know how physical we can be. In this game, we don't want to take a step back."
Georgia lost starting inside linebackers Alec Ogletree and Christian Robinson to foot injuries in the first two games.
Robinson could return this week, but the defense has developed depth at the position with freshmen Amarlo Herrera and Ramik Wilson joining junior Michael Gilliard and Shawn Williams.
Gilliard said defensive players are playing with more confidence because they are more comfortable with the scheme.
"Last year was the first year in the system," Gilliard said. "When you're in the first year in a system, you're not too familiar with it and you're going to play slow. When you know what you're doing, you're going to play fast.
"I just feel like now guys are running full-speed."
Georgia lists Gilliard and Herrera as the starters.
"It's a big day for those guys," Richt said, referring to the linebackers' challenge against Mississippi State.
Richt said Mississippi State showed how physical it is in its 19-6 loss to now-No. 1 Louisiana State.
"They are a very physical team," Richt said. "Most everybody who watches college football probably watched them play LSU. ... What I saw is what everybody else saw, two teams just having a bloody battle up front."
Other leaders are emerging on the Georgia defense. Safety Bacarri Rambo, who had two interceptions against Ole Miss, has four interceptions in only three games. He leads the nation with his average of 1.33 interceptions per game.
Southern Cal transfer Jarvis Jones has a team-leading 23 tackles, including 3 « for losses, and a sack. Sanders Commings has 19 tackles and a sack while playing safety and cornerback. Defensive end Abry Jones has 15 tackles and a sack.
"I think the defense is running pretty high right now," Abry Jones said Tuesday. "I think we're doing real well. I think we've surpassed last year's defense with the physicality of us stopping the run and just getting off the field on third downs when it really counts.
"I think we all see pretty much where we can go. We see what we're capable of. We still see the minor details we're still messing up on that we can greatly improve to make ourselves a great defense."
Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said one difference in Georgia's defense has been the play of huge defensive tackles Kwame Geathers (6-6, 350) and John Jenkins (6-3, 351).
"I think they're very multiple and they're a better defense this year because their kids are much more comfortable in that system," Mullen said. "They fit some more personnel to that system with the size of their defensive lineman ... They've adjusted to that way but they still give you a multitude of looks. They blitz from every different direction, play a lot of guys."