Hard times force Bulldogs to re-evaluate themselves

ATHENS — The refrain was repeated time and time again during the offseason for Georgia. This year was different. The focus was sharp, the intensity was high, and the results would be better.

The weight room was full each day. The film room bustled with players coming and going, studying for on-field tests that were still months away. The off-field incidents that plagued the team in 2008 were a thing of the past.

These were new Bulldogs — harder working and harder hitting.

Six weeks into a season that has quickly become the most exhausting of head coach Mark Richt’s career, those promises of improved focus and effort seem like ancient history. The burdens of reality and the scars of too many missed opportunities have taken their toll. Now, with one game left before Georgia’s annual meeting with Florida, linebacker Rennie Curran said the Bulldogs are in desperate need of a renewed commitment to excellence.

“I feel like everybody individually has to look themselves in the mirror and see how they can get better, see what’s gone wrong,” Curran said. “If that means sitting in the film room and watching and critiquing yourself, that’s something you need to do. You have to do those things to get better and learn from your mistakes. We’ve got so many other things going on with school, with our families, but at the same time, that’s what we came to this school for was to be great football players.”

The work done in the offseason was the work of players who wanted to be great, Curran said. But as the results have failed to materialize, he wonders if some of that effort has waned, too.

After five close games to start the season, Tennessee demolished Georgia last week. The Bulldogs’ offense never crossed the Volunteers’ 35-yard line, and the defense was dissected by maligned quarterback Johnathan Crompton, who repeatedly took off on bootlegs and threw to open receivers, with the Georgia defense helpless to stop it.

The loss took its toll emotionally, cornerback Brandon Boykin said, but it also underscored where the team has been lacking.

“Film study helps, and that might be the deciding factor in a lot of our games,” Boykin said. “But I also feel like it’s man on man, who’s the best a lot of times, and it comes down to us not making the play. But film study would definitely help us as a group if everybody got in there and did what they’re supposed to do.”

It’s not that the team hasn’t been in the film room. It’s that the players haven’t gone above and beyond, in spite of the unacceptable results on the field.

On the offensive side of the ball, there appears to be little cohesion, senior receiver Mike Moore said. The line has struggled to block, the receivers have dropped key passes, the backs haven’t hit their holes, and quarterback Joe Cox has turned the ball over at least once in every game.

With so little functioning properly, it’s hard to know where to begin fixing the problem.

“The running game is a big part of our offense, with the play-action, and if we’re not having success running the ball, we’re not going to have success throwing the ball,” Moore said. “It starts up front with the O-line, then to the backs and then to the receivers. Everybody has to be on the same page, and everybody has to be willing to go out there and dominate on every play.”

On defense, last year’s struggles with missed tackles and missed assignments have resurfaced. After consecutive weeks in which the defensive line was dominant, Georgia failed to record a sack against Tennessee. The secondary has been exposed repeatedly, with Crompton becoming the third SEC quarterback in four conference games to post at least 300 yards passing against the Bulldogs.

“It’s a work in progress,” defensive coordinator Willie Martinez said. “You keep talking about those things and being disciplined. You have some guys that have some inexperience and that’s going to happen. You just have to work through it, continue to practice it and stress it to where you can be more consistent.”

The season is just halfway finished, senior defensive tackle Jeff Owens said, but it has felt longer. Losing is no fun.

But if the Bulldogs want to stop the bleeding and get back on track, they’ll need to find some renewed energy and start enjoying themselves again, in spite of the current climate of despair.

“You’ve got to give it your all,” Owens said. “We know it’s a grind. We know it’s tough. If it wasn’t tough, everybody in the world would be doing it. But you have to go out and give it your all, and you’ve got to have fun. That’s what we have to get back is guys having fun, making plays and being excited.”

Curran said the philosophy for the players is simple: They all say they want to be great. They say they want to play at the next level. They want to win.

Now it’s time to prove it.

“At times like these you have to remind the guys of why we came here,” he said. “We have to realize that the work that we put in during the offseason and how much work has gone into this whole entire season and just what we represent in the tradition and the guys who have done it before us. ... You have to do what it takes. You have to sacrifice. You have to study. You have to have those late nights. You have to put in that extra time. Those are the things you try to drive home to your teammates that it’s not just going to come overnight.”

Fans aren’t happy with the season, and the players know it. They aren’t happy either.

The failures of the first six weeks are in the books, Cox said. There’s nothing that can be done to change that.

What remains is the question of how much the Bulldogs are willing to do to make the next six games better than the last.

“Everybody complains about how we’re doing, but we didn’t want to play this way either,” Cox said. “We didn’t want to be 3-3. We didn’t expect to be 3-3. But now we can either shut it down or keep going and make the best of the season and finish strong. I don’t have any doubt that our team is going to want to finish the season right and be a good team.”