ORLANDO, Fla. — Things were different last week, Georgia linebacker Rennie Curran said. They had to be.
Before the Bulldogs even took to the Florida Citrus Bowl field Thursday, Curran and his defensive teammates knew this game would be different. All week, the attitude had been better. The practice was more intense. The focus was sharp.
This was the final chance for the defense to restore its image, and with a commanding 24-12 victory, that’s exactly what the Bulldogs did.
“Our mentality changed as a defense when we came out here, just this whole entire week,” Curran said. “We really came together, especially in the locker room before the game. We just laid it all on the line because we knew it would be our last game together.”
Thursday’s game was a flashback to better days for Georgia, for the defense and for coordinator Willie Martinez.
Following months of near constant criticism and five straight games of sub-par play, the focus during Georgia’s bowl preparations for Michigan State had shifted from simply scheming for the Spartans’ offense to plotting redemption for the failures of the 2008 season.
“We knew with the kind of criticism we were facing as a defense that we needed to make a statement,” Curran said, “that we needed to finish up strong with the loss to Tech and everything like that. We needed to send the seniors out right.”
Martinez was the obvious target following five weeks of dismal defensive performances. In four of Georgia’s final five contests, the Bulldogs allowed 38 points or more.
Running backs and mobile quarterbacks had a field day, and some of the players often seemed lost, disinterested or both. Thursday’s game, however, was a reminder that Martinez hadn’t forgotten how to coach just because Georgia had a few bad games.
“A lot of people have talked down on them,” Martinez said of his defense. “Obviously it starts with me, and I know we’ve got to be held accountable for all that, but I really thought they showed great poise, great toughness, bowed their necks.”
Particularly frustrating throughout the final games of the season was the defense’s inability to swing momentum back in the Bulldogs’ favor after a bad play on offense or special teams put Georgia on its heals. Red-zone stops were rare, with missed tackles and killer penalties adding to an overall lack of focus in crucial situations.
After Georgia quarterback Matthew Stafford threw an interception in the first quarter to set Michigan State up with a first-and-goal at the 6, however, the defense proved its mettle. Javon Ringer, the nation’s leading rusher, was thwarted on consecutive runs, and Brian Hoyer’s third-down pass fell incomplete, forcing the Spartans to settle for a field goal.
Overall, Michigan State was able to move into Georgia territory eight times in the game — twice following turnovers and once after a botched punt — but was limited to just 12 points.
“We’ve had those situations all year where we’ve had some turnovers or bad field position because of the kicking game, and we weren’t able to shut them down. We were able to do that today, and that’s huge because you see what happens.”
The success provided some retribution for the team as a whole, but more than anything, it was a measure of vindication for the coach who had absorbed the majority of the criticism for the team’s lackluster play throughout the season.
“Coach Martinez has done a great job since he’s been here, and I think everything he’s done for us on and off the field showed in how we played,” cornerback Asher Allen said. “I think we should have been doing it the whole year, but playing four quarters like we did today was good.”
Georgia finished the game with six sacks of Michigan State quarterbacks.
The Spartans’ vaunted rushing game netted a mere 31 yards. Overall, the Bulldogs surrendered just 236 yards of offense — a little more than half what they had allowed against Georgia Tech a month earlier.
After the game, a reporter asked head coach Mark Richt if it had been the team’s goal to play a bend-but-don’t-break style on defense. Richt took exception with the characterization. He didn’t think the defense had even bent.
Accepting the Capital One Bowl trophy after the game, Richt said the defense had turned in a “junkyard dog” performance, a nod to the elite Georgia defenses of years past. It was a label the Bulldogs had been waiting a long time to live up to.