The Mountaineers’ scoring fest was something the Dawgs had not seen since Mark Richt arrived in 2001. Touchdown after touchdown, West Virginia was scoring points and racking up yards the Bulldogs had not given up in years. But the defense’s performance in the Sugar Bowl was simply the finale of a disappointing end of the season.
“That game left a bitter taste in our mouths,” said senior linebacker Danny Wheeler. “We have been thinking about that all during the off-season.”
Georgia surrendered 100 rushing yards or more in all but two of its last eight games of the season. Arkansas and Auburn racked up more than 200, while West Virginia slashed the Dawgs for 382 yards.
“It was not just the West Virginia game where we struggled,” Wheeler said. “There were some teams that put it to us.”
Something needed to change. Georgia had to stop the run or they were headed for a long season.
“Coach Martinez was pounding us and pounding us about it,” senior middle linebacker Jarvis Jackson said. “Our defense is predicated on stopping the run, so we have to stop the run.”
Whatever Martinez did in the off-season worked. Not only is Georgia ranked seventh nationally in rushing yards allowed – 57 yards per game – but they are second in the county in points allowed – four points per game.
Perhaps not since the recently departed Erk Russell has Georgia’s defense been so dominant.
“Our guys are playing with a lot of confidence right now,” said head coach Mark Richt.
The Bulldog defense should be – for the first time since the 1980 national championship season, Georgia has had back-to-back shutouts (Vanderbilt 41-0 and Kentucky 27-0). The 12 points Georgia has allowed through the first three games are the fewest since 1937 (7 points), and two of the 12 points scored by Western Kentucky were on a safety.
Richt said depth on the Bulldog defense is some of the reason for the defensive turnaround.
“We are subbing more now than any other time I have been at Georgia – and I like that,” he said. “There are a lot of different guys making plays; it is spread around. It’s a sign that we are a good defense.”
Georgia’s defensive critics last season said they looked slow – almost in slow motion against West Virginia. So, Richt and Martinez required their linebackers to get quicker – faster.
“In the off-season we talked a lot about doing more agility drills. We wanted to get them faster and more agile,” Richt said.
“We spent time together working on our speed and footwork,” added Wheeler. “The biggest thing was to get into shape. We looked a little tired out there.”
But it wasn’t all about speed, according to Wheeler – some of it was these Bulldogs’ desire not to go out and allow another Sugar Bowl-like performance to happen on their watch.
“We knew we had to step it up and become grown men,” Wheeler said, indicating his distaste for the way the Bulldogs’ defense was thrown around at the end of 2005.