He looked at the statistics that showed his defense had been gashed three weeks in a row. He looked at the standings and knew Georgia had fallen short of its goals. He looked at his teammates and saw too many players hanging their heads.
So before the Bulldogs began preparation for Auburn last week, he called a players-only meeting for the defense and set some goals for his unit.
“After coming back from Jacksonville, we kind of got down in the dumps because Florida beat us,” Irvin said. “We went into Kentucky, and we didn’t play the Georgia way. I called a team meeting just to say enough is enough. It’s time to step up and man up and just play defense.”
The message was received Saturday, Irvin said, as the Bulldogs’ defense held firm during a late Auburn drive to preserve a 17-13 win at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
The game’s emotional conclusion was the perfect example of how far the Bulldogs had come in a week, Irvin said. Auburn quickly moved the ball downfield, and a pass-interference call on cornerback Asher Allen set the Tigers up with a first down at the Georgia 23. The defense stifled Auburn quarterback Kodi Burns, however, and his final pass to Ben Tate in the end zone fell incomplete to seal the victory.
“We were playing with emotion,” Irvin said. “We were having fun. When Asher got the pass interference, we didn’t hang our head low. We didn’t get down in the dumps and think we’re going to lose. We bowed our neck back, and we attacked, and we kept them out of the end zone. We just played with some real good passion and some emotional football.”
That was a big change from the past few weeks when Georgia allowed three straight opponents to score at least 38 points and collect more than 160 yards rushing.
The poor performances led to a week of criticism that included calls for defensive coordinator Willie Martinez to be fired.
Irvin’s unit responded against Auburn, holding the Tigers to just 13 points and just 3.4 yards per carry on the ground.
“We’ve been criticized for the last couple weeks now,” Irvin said. “They can’t stop the run. Coach Martinez this, and Coach Martinez that. The scoreboard – we’re getting 38, 40 points put on us. They scored 13 points. I’m not bragging, but we were just tired of that.”
Part of the defensive struggles were out of the defense’s hands. Last week against Kentucky, Georgia’s special teams set the Wildcats up with a short field on three different scoring drives.
The same was true two weeks ago against Florida, when the offense turned the ball over four times in the second half.
The bad breaks hurt the defense’s moral, and rather than stepping up to halt the drives, the players hung their heads in disgust.
That didn’t happen Saturday.
“We were all just about our game, focused on doing things the Georgia way,” said linebacker Rennie Curran, who led the Bulldogs with nine tackles. “That was the huge difference from the games before. No matter where we came in, everybody was enthusiastic. Nobody talked about where the ball was. We all just came in and played ball and scratched and clawed.”
For the second straight week, that scratching and clawing was a necessity in the game’s final minutes.
The Bulldogs picked off a Randall Cobb pass last week to preserve a win, and while they couldn’t force a late turnover against Auburn, the defense still managed to get the job done.
“Two-minute drill, you know it’s going to be passing,” Allen said. “No timeouts. It’s a defense’s dream. You know you’ve got to come up with a play.”
Of course, it wasn’t a perfect day. Those goals Irvin had set for his team weren’t all met.
He wanted to hold Auburn to less than 100 yards rushing. The Tigers mustered 124.
He wanted the defense to pitch a shutout. Auburn found the end zone twice.
Those missed objectives didn’t sit well with Irvin, but it was the third goal he knew was most crucial. He wanted to see his team play with passion, and that’s exactly what it did.
With a week off and Georgia Tech looming on the horizon, Irvin said he was already focused on the next challenge.
“I like to be perfect,” he said. “I like to set the bar high, so we’ll make some more goals next week for Georgia Tech.”