Last week, Georgia had a chance to win a game against LSU despite a first half that included just one first down. The defense had carried the burden while the offense found its way.
All tolled, it has been two strong weeks for a unit that spent the early part of the season digging its way out from under a mountain of criticism. The statistics still say the Bulldogs are the second-worst defense in the conference, but the results of the past two games tell a different story.
“I feel like we’re making steps in the right direction,” linebacker Rennie Curran said. “We’ve got guys who are dedicated and want to win, but it’s just taking that to the next level.”
For the past two weeks, Georgia’s defense has been at a different level, but that started with accepting the cold reality that the preceding performances were far below what was acceptable.
Against South Carolina, the defense struggled. Against Arkansas a week later, it was a disaster.
Georgia’s defense allowed the Razorbacks to complete big play after big play, keeping pace with the Bulldogs’ own offensive attack well into the fourth quarter. In all, Arkansas tallied 485 yards of offense and Ryan Mallett threw for five touchdowns. It was an eye-opening performance for a unit that had hoped it had put the problems of 2008 behind it.
“That Arkansas game, it was embarrassing to us as a defense,” cornerback Brandon Boykin said. “Hearing people say we weren’t good, the secondary was no good – we knew what we were capable of. It was just a matter of us going out and doing it. I think we knew we had each other’s back and we went out and played like we knew we could play.”
The criticism had dogged the defense throughout the 2008 season, but it reached a new crescendo following the Arkansas game. Defensive coordinator Willie Martinez was once again in the crosshairs of angry fans, but the players knew the blame belonged with them.
In the locker room, there were moments of anger, but the burdens of eliminating the criticism were easy to overcome. The talent was there, the players simply had to play better.
“It’s more like we had the chip on the shoulder, worrying about the guys in the room,” defensive tackle Kade Weston said. “We weren’t worried about what the outside people said because at the end of the day, I don’t have but the coaches and the guys in the defensive room. So we just rallied as a team and decided we were going to go out there and play for each other.”
The difference in practice has been palpable, Curran said.
It’s not that Georgia’s defenders had been turning in lackluster performances earlier in the season, but Curran admits the efforts against the scout teams were not what they needed to be.
For the past three weeks, however, Curran said there hasn’t been any loafing. Every day is game day, and the scout teamers are paying the price.
“We pretty much have gone against the scout team like it’s Saturday,” Curran said. “We’re playing aggressively against them, and that all translates into good performances in the game.”
The energy hasn’t all come from frustration, however. The intensity has been boosted by a wave of youthful exuberance and a small taste of success.
Throughout the first three games of the season, Georgia’s pass rush was a disaster. The team had just four sacks, and the result was an awfully comfortable pocket for the opposing quarterback to pick apart Georgia’s secondary.
Enter Justin Houston, the sophomore defensive end who missed the first two games of the season due to a suspension. His offseason had been widely praised by coaches and teammates, and once he got his legs underneath him by Week 4, opposing offensive linemen were quickly overwhelmed and Houston’s fellow pass-rushers were instantly energized. Georgia racked up seven sacks in its past two games and added 11 more tackles in the backfield of opposing ball carriers.
“With pressure, it’s like Coach said, you keep coming and keep coming,” Weston said. “If you’re relentless, you’re finally going to have some sacks.”
Houston’s return, along with the insertion of a bevy of young talent, including cornerback Branden Smith, safety Baccari Rambo and linebacker Nick Williams, provided a spark of energy that had been missing in the early going.
Suddenly a group of hungry young players were pushing for jobs, and the veterans took notice. The ripple effect was felt all over the field on game days.
“When the youth mixes in, you can see the confidence level go up from the defensive line, the linebackers and the secondary,” Martinez said. “Any time you have success, it breeds confidence, and we’ve done that the last couple of weeks.”
The task doesn’t get any easier this week.
While the defense has been improved, this week’s matchup against Tennessee will pit Georgia against the best offensive line it has seen all season, and the Volunteers will be focused on running the ball at all costs with tailback Montario Hardesty.
“Their offensive line is outstanding,” Martinez said. “They’ve got some senior leadership there and they just stick to you. Then you have a guy like Hardesty that is a north-south, east-west, juke, spin, just get every inch kind of a guy. He’s a great back.”
As intimidating as the challenge may appear, however, Georgia’s defenders believe they can bet great, too.
The truth is, they’ve always believed that, they just haven’t lived up to the billing. While Boykin isn’t ready to say the tide has turned for good, he knows the Bulldogs have put some early problems behind them. Now it’s simply a matter of keeping the momentum going.
“I wouldn’t say anything has clicked, it’s just been minimizing the mistakes we made in the first two games and growing together as a team,” Boykin said. “I feel like we had this inside us the whole time, it’s just finally coming together.”