December 01, 2010
A season in review. Today: Georgia's defensive overhaul.
• The Expectation. Token scapegoat Willie Martinez was out after a disappointing 8-5 finish in 2009, the fourth consecutive season since Martinez was promoted to defensive coordinator in 2005 that his defense had allowed more points per game than the previous season. Veteran NFL hand Todd Grantham was in.
As with all new coordinators, Grantham's arrival inevitably signaled a "more aggressive" approach than UGA got from Martinez, who – like almost all outgoing coordinators – had frankly become a little too contemplative for their tastes. Grantham was one of the coaches driving the rejuvenated 3-4 bandwagon, and spent the spring totally revamping the Bulldog D in the image of the scheme he taught as the Dallas Cowboys' defensive line coach.
• The Reality. SEC sack leader Justin Houston notwithstanding, there's no evidence of any significant rise in pressure in the transition from Martinez to Grantham – sacks and quarterback hurries were actually slightly down, and tackles for loss nearly identical. In fact, it was all nearly identical: In terms of the big-picture measures – points per game, yards per game and yards per play – the swing from 2009 to 2010 was less than 11 percent in every category, which held across the board even after filtering out non-conference games and seven games against non-winning teams (based on final record). Five of the 'Dogs' six losses came in games in which they yielded at least 24 points, in all but one of which they also scored 24 points.
• Positive Spin. The most obvious turnaround came in the form of turnovers: The Bulldogs went from a pitiful 12 takeaways in '09 – including a national-low two fumble recoveries – to 24 this fall, coming up with ten loose balls. The improved greed paid dividends with four defensive touchdowns, compared to just one in 2009, although it must be noted that three of those came against Louisiana-Lafayette and Idaho State, whose outmanned quarterbacks also accounted for six of Georgia's 14 interceptions.
Back in the big picture, seven of the first eight opponents (all except Colorado) were held below their season averages in both yards and points.
• Negative Spin. The Bulldogs' three biggest rivals all went over their season averages on the scoreboard down the stretch, and they all did it largely on the ground: Florida piled up 231 rushing, Auburn 315 and Georgia Tech a staggering 411 from the triple option last Saturday in a 42-34 shootout that saved UGA – at least temporarily – from a losing season. Earlier in the year, the 'Dogs were also pounded into submission by South Carolina freshman Marcus Lattimore in his first SEC start, and went on to give up 179 and 235 yards on the ground, respectively, to Mississippi State and Colorado in back-to-back losses that nearly brought the roof down on head coach Mark Richt.
The secondary came in for an early shreddin' of its own at the hands of Ryan Mallett, who turned in a leisurely 380-yard, three-touchdown afternoon capped by a game-winning touchdown pass to Greg Childs from 40 yards out in the final minute. Kentucky's Mike Hartline hung 353 yards and four touchdowns on the UGA secondary a month later, in another shootout Georgia win.
• The Takeaway. Well, opponents' points per game went down for the first time in five years, even if only slightly. But considering that the offense also averaged nearly a touchdown more per game over '09 with a vastly improved turnover margin and both the overall and SEC records got worse, it's impossible to paint the campaign as a step forward. In fact, given the borderline collapses against three major rivals in the final month, it looks more like the train is beginning to roll back down the hill.
At best, 2010 was a sideways step from the season that got Martinez fired, and with one more loss, Richt might have been right behind him. Justin Houston is a cornerstone, an elite athlete who can change opponents' game plans. But he's most likely on his way to the NFL in a month, along with leading tackler Akeem Dent, a senior. It looks like Richt is going to survive for 11th year at the helm. But for the sake of a truly make-or-break 2011, this team can really, really use the extra practices ahead of the bowl game.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.