The big question: Defense is Georgia's top concern

sports@macon.comMarch 29, 2009 

ATHENS — Corvey Irvin sat alone in the corner of the media room at Sanford Stadium.

With his head tucked firmly in between both hands, all he could do was wonder where everything went so wrong.

Irvin was 14 years old the last time Georgia had lost to Georgia Tech, and he knew that his defense was about to be the primary target for Bulldogs fans’ complaints.

“When it came down to it, we couldn’t make the play,” Irvin said. “We just had mental breakdowns out there. I’m devastated about the way everything happened.”

Georgia had taken a commanding 28-12 halftime lead and all signs pointed toward another blowout. After all, it was Senior Day and no one on Georgia’s roster — including head Mark Richt — had ever lost to the Bulldogs’ in-state rival.

But for the fourth time in the team’s past five games, the Georgia defense opened the third quarter flat, and before any Georgia fan could crack another Reggie Ball joke, the Yellow Jackets reeled off 26 unanswered points to take a lead that they never relinquished.

“The Tech game was such a tough loss for not just me personally, but for our entire defense,” safety Reshad Jones said. “As a defense, that was our lowest point.”

In 47 regular-season games as Georgia’s defensive coordinator, Willie Martinez had now seen his defense give up more than 30 points 10 times.

TEN MONTHS EARLIER

Martinez arrived at the SGeorgiar Bowl with the hottest team in the country. After an embarrassing midseason showing at Tennessee, Georgia had won its previous six games and was the first answer to the “Who would you least want your team to play right now?” question.

It had been an up-and-down three seasons for Martinez as coordinator, but his group was finally playing at the level he expected. Still, many critics tagged the defense as inexperienced — with six of 11 starters being freshmen or sophomores — and expected Colt Brennan and Hawaii’s potent offense to score at will.

But the faster, more athletic Georgia defense overwhelmed Hawaii, the primary reason for Georgia’s 41-10 rout.

“We just executed to perfection,” cornerback Percy Croffie said. “Everyone was talking about how (Hawaii) was unstoppable, and we just wanted to prove they could be shut down. It was the best game we played all year.”

As linebacker Dannell Ellerbe ran back to the Bulldogs’ sideline after making Georgia’s third interception of the game, Martinez leaped into his arms. With both hands raised high in the air, the hype for 2008 had begun.

LOFTY EXPECTATIONS

When Brian VanGorder was hand-picked by Richt to become Georgia’s defensive coordinator prior to the 2001 season, the 41-year-old journeyman was relatively unknown to Southernf football fans.

Van Gorder spent the previous 12 years bouncing around five different universities and had no experience as a coach or player at any BCS program.

VanGorder, however, worked quickly to leave his stamp on Georgia as he made sure that the unit would have the swagger and toughness that had been lacking during the Jim Donnan-era.

In his first season, VanGorder directed Georgia to the fifth-best defense in the nation against the run, and by 2003, it ranked in the top five nationally in every statistical category.

At the conclusion of the 2003 season, VanGorder received the Frank Boyles Award, which is annually given to the top assistant coach in the country, and by the end of 2004, he decided it was time to test the waters of the NFL.

VanGorder had stayed at Georgia just four seasons, but his legacy, and more importantly, the expectations, had been set.

In 46 regular-season games at coordinator from 2001-04, VanGorder’s defense never allowed an opponent to score 30 points.

THE BEGINNING

The start of the 2008 season saw Georgia’s Woodruff Practice Fields turn from a workout facility into a media circus.

With Georgia donning the cover of seemingly every magazine in the country, the bull’s-eye had been placed squarely between every dog bone on the back of the helmet.

Georgia had gone from a respected SEC program to the front-runner for a national championship.

But just one play after the season started, the heart and soul of Martinez’s defense was holding his knee in agony.

Jeff Owens had torn his ACL, and unfortunately for Georgia, the injury bug was just beginning to bite. In the ensuing eight games, Georgia’s defense started 20 different players, many of whom were playing at less than 100 percent.

“I’ve been around coaching for a long time, but I don’t think I’ve ever experienced this many injuries,” Richt said. “We’re not going to use that as an excuse, but it’s definitely tough when you have to move defensive tackles to defensive end so you can just have enough bodies to practice.”

In spite of all the injuries, however, Georgia still headed to Jacksonville as the No. 5 team in the country, with every preseason goal still achievable — including the BCS title.

ONE-SIDED COCKTAIL PARTY

Some called it the biggest Georgia game in decades. Others labeled it most meaningful Georgia-Florida game in the 87-year history of the rivalry.

Either way, it was a battle between two teams ranked in the top eight in the country, and it was a test for SEC East supremacy.

“Florida is definitely peaking,” Richt said prior to the game. “I hope they have peaked already. I hope they can’t get better than they have been.”

Unfortunately for Georgia, Urban Meyer had waited an entire year to enact his revenge for Georgia’s infamous touchdown celebration the year before. And Jacksonville Municipal Stadium witnessed the most talked about game of 2008 turn into a 49-10 blowout, and rumors surrounding the job security of Martinez began to grow.

“I’m in this profession, I understand,” Martinez said of the public’s opinion of him. “I know critiquing is part of it. I don’t get caught up in what people are saying and things like that.”

Adding fuel to the already blazing fire, less than 24 hours after Georgia’s no-show performance in Jacksonville, the Atlanta Falcons — and first-year defensive coordinator VanGorder — traveled to Oakland and dominated the Raiders.

The game was essentially over at halftime as VanGorder’s defense held Oakland to minus-2 yards of offense and allowed only three first downs the entire game. It was the Falcons’ first shutout since 2002 and the ‘We miss BVG’ chants were louder than ever in Athens.

STANDING BY HIS MAN

In about three months, Georgia had gone from the preseason No. 1 team in the country to a team with a roster littered with NFL first-day picks that had failed to meet expectations.

That same inexperienced defense whose patience and discipline had baffled Hawaii’s offensive guru June Jones now sat atop the SEC in penalty yardage and seemingly couldn’t keep opponents out of the end zone.

“I talked to some of the former players, and they all wanted to know what was wrong with our defense,” Rennie Curran said. “In the past, when you think about Georgia football, the first thing that comes to mind is defense. There have been tons of players who have set that tradition, and I feel like we let those guys down.”

After VanGorder’s run of four consecutive years without a team reaching 30 points, the 2008 defense allowed more than 25 points per game on average in the regular season and saw five opponents score at least 38.

“It starts with me,” Martinez said of his defense’s performance. “You take the three losses, but in particular the (loss to Georgia Tech), we played outstanding in the first half. You take the second half, and we played the complete opposite. It wasn’t the same intensity, it wasn’t the same focus, and again, that comes down on me. We’ve got to play 60 minutes, and we didn’t do that in big games.”

But throughout the first weeks of 2009, Richt made it clear that he was standing firm with Martinez. Despite hearing the cry from many that a change needed to be made, Richt’s loyalty never wavered.

LEARNING BUT NEVER FORGETTING

The Woodruff Practice Fields were quiet Tuesday.

The number of media members could be counted on both hands, and there wasn’t a television camera in sight. Sports Illustrated wasn’t preparing a cover shoot, and the thought of a No. 1 ranking was far from the minds of anyone.

The Georgia defense was simply doing what it has been doing since 2009 spring practice began.

It was working on accountability.

It was mastering the fundamentals.

It was playing with something to prove.

“We have a chip on our shoulder,” Curran said after Georgia’s second day in full pads. “We have to set the tempo from the beginning and change the mentality. We’re trying to form a firm foundation for this entire season. Last year, we saw a lot of things that held us back, and we don’t want that to continue.”

But the scars from 2008 have not gone away. In fact, Martinez is making sure they remain fresh in the minds of his players.

“It won’t be forgotten,” he said sternly. “You try to learn from history. I hope they’ve taken (what happened last year) personally. It was us.”

Still, the task of taking Georgia’s once decorated defense back to its glory days will be challenging at best. With ESPN draft expert Mel Kiper expecting five Bulldogs to be selected in the first three rounds of the upcoming NFL draft, the defense will have to replace key contributors on their side of the ball, while most of the offensive stars who kept them off the field are also gone.

Despite all of this, the defense is staying positive, and the departures are being viewed in another way.

“I mean I love the guys that left, but I feel like we are more balanced,” safety Bryan Evans said. “Just because of the simple fact that I feel like we need to step our game up. Even though some of our superstars are gone, I think this team realizes that some of the best teams win championships that don’t have first-rounders. We want to learn from our mistakes and show that even without those star players we can still play in Atlanta, in the Dome, for the SEC championship.”

And maybe Evans is right. After all, the last time Georgia saw five players selected in the first three rounds of the NFL draft, the Bulldogs responded the following year by winning the 2005 SEC championship.

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