ATHENS, Ga. — Georgia is undefeated in the Southeastern Conference — quite a feat given the state of its defense.
The No. 21 Bulldogs (2-1, 2-0 SEC) are coming off a pair of dismal performances heading into Saturday night’s game against Arizona State, a stretch that has really turned up the heat on defensive coordinator Willie Martinez.
“Obviously, it’s not fun,” said Martinez, a frequent target of fan complaints through much of his five years running the defense. “We’re not playing the kind of defense that we’ve grown accustomed to playing around here.”
Georgia ranks last in the conference in points allowed, passing yards and total yards but still managed to win the past two weeks largely on the back of the offense.
The defensive players are certainly aware of all the “Fire Willie Martinez” petitions and blogs circulating on the Internet.
“We don’t pay attention to it as much as people might think,” safety Bryan Evans said. “At the same time, it is the back of our heads because we’re the people out there playing. It’s not all on him. I think that’s where a lot of the confusion comes with being defensive coordinator. He’s not the one out there playing, making the plays or making the mistakes we’re making.”
Evans and the rest of the secondary are certainly under the gun, especially after last week’s wild 52-41 victory at Arkansas. Ryan Mallett threw for 408 yards and five touchdowns, a performance that certainly would have resulted in a loss on most Saturdays.
Thankfully for the Bulldogs, Joe Cox tied a school record with five touchdown passes of his own, and the offense piled up a staggering 530 yards overall.
“A lot of the finger pointing has to do with us in the secondary — period,” Evans conceded.
Head coach Mark Richt has steadfastly defended Martinez as the criticism has increased, blaming turnovers, penalties and special teams miscues for putting the defense in some bad situations. But there’s no denying that Georgia’s defense has taken a turn for the worse since Brian VanGorder left for the NFL after the 2004 season.
Georgia has surrendered an increasing number of points each year of Martinez’s regime, rising from 16.4 his first season to 24.3 a year ago. Also, the Bulldogs have given up at least 30 points in 13 games under the current coordinator, something that happened only once in VanGorder’s four years in Athens.
A quarter of the way through Martinez’s fifth season, Georgia ranks 108th nationally in points allowed (34.0), 112th in passing yards (285.3), and 97th in total defense (406.3).
“We all know that people talk,” defensive end Demarcus Dobbs said. “Just looking at the points we’re giving up, we know there’s going to be people saying things.”
The Bulldogs aren’t even very strong against the run — their average of 121 yards per game ranks eighth in the SEC and 53rd nationally — but that part of their game looks stellar next to the pass defense.
Martinez said everyone shares the blame, even though it’s the secondary that usually gets singled out by fans and the media.
The defensive linemen have managed only one sack through the first three games (linebackers have the other two) and has frequently been burned by play-action, holding up because they think the run is coming. The secondary already has surrendered nine touchdown passes — nearly twice as many as any other SEC team, and three of them covering at least 40 yards.
“If they’re going to throw the ball deep and you’re there, you’ve got to make the play,” Martinez said. “We’ve been in position at times to do it, but we didn’t do it.”
Richt continues to deflect criticism away from Martinez, but there’s little doubt the Bulldogs must improve significantly the rest of the season to fend off all those critics who feel a change is needed.
The schedule only gets tougher with opponents such as No. 7 LSU and top-ranked Florida still to come.
“Winning is what it’s all about,” Richt said. “You’re not going to see anybody pointing fingers or doing anything but encouraging their teammates and fellow coaches. That’s the way we’ve operated here for the last nine years, and that’s not going to change.”