Permit me to begin by tipping my cap to the Tennessee Volunteers on a well-played game of football. Despite facing some early adversity, the better team prevailed and I congratulate the visitors on their achievement.
In many respects, I feel better after this loss than I did after the previous pair of wins. The offense was much improved. Seven different Bulldogs caught passes and both Thomas Brown and Kregg Lumpkin averaged six yards per carry or better. Brannan Southerland continued to demonstrate that he is the latest in a long line of underappreciated yet exceptional Red and Black fullbacks.
Brannan Southerland ran the ball four times, caught three passes, tallied 55 yards, and scored two touchdowns. (Photograph from Athens Banner-Herald.)
Joe Tereshinski III connected on 12 of his 20 pass attempts and both of his interceptions were attributable more to fine plays by the Volunteer defense than to ill-advised throws by the Georgia quarterback. (Ironically, those of Joe T.'s throws that probably should have been intercepted weren't.) Georgia converted half of its third downs, demonstrating marked improvement.
Special teams were a mixed bag of incompatible extremes. Between them, LaMarcus Coker and Lucas Taylor racked up 125 yards on six kickoff returns. Four of Thomas Brown's five kickoff returns netted just 37 yards and he often showed poor judgment that produced poor field position. A high snap to Gordon Ely-Kelso resulted in a blocked punt, which resulted in a Tennessee touchdown. Nevertheless, it's hard to complain too much about the special teams in any game in which Mikey Henderson returns a punt 86 yards for a touchdown and Thomas Brown returns a kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown.
While I believe the outcome of this contest had more to do with credit than with blame---it had more to do with the Big Orange's effectiveness than with the Red and Black's ineptitude---the responsibility for the loss must be placed at the feet of what previously had been the most reliable phase of the Bulldogs' game, the defense.
Permit me to offer a word or two of constructive criticism, Coach.
When a team holds a 24-7 lead with four and a half minutes before halftime in a night game at home, that team ought to win the football game. I am well aware that exceptional efforts by the Volunteer defense and return team gave the Tennessee offense great starting field position throughout the second half and that Erik Ainge proved to be deadly accurate, throwing 38 passes for 25 completions, 268 yards, two touchdowns, and no interceptions after getting off to a rough start in the early going.
What is troubling is that, while Tennessee made some defensive adjustments, Georgia didn't. In the final 35 minutes of the contest, the Volunteer offense simply was able to do whatever it wanted to do, unimpeded by the efforts of a talented and accomplished Bulldog defense. Given David Cutcliffe's demonstrable coaching acumen, this should come as no surprise, since even an amateur observer like me was able to offer this insight before the game:
Last week, I raised questions about John Eason's future in Athens, which may have been premature. There are, however, real doubts whether Willie Martinez has been promoted beyond his level of competence. One of the hallmarks of Brian VanGorder's tenure as Georgia's defensive coordinator was that his teams made halftime adjustments that allowed the Junkyard 'Dawgs to shut down the opposition after intermission. Last night, the Red and Black gave up more points in the second half (37) than they had given up in their first five games combined (34).
Last night, for just the second time ever, a visiting team scored 50 points in Sanford Stadium. The last time it happened was in Georgia's 1995 loss to Florida. Following the Bulldogs' next game, the head coach who presided over that debacle was fired.
Obviously, I am an unequivocal supporter of Mark Richt and I always have been. There is no question that Coach Richt is the right man for the Georgia program and I believe that, at the end of his tenure in the Classic City, he will be hailed as the finest head coach the Bulldogs have ever had. However, he made a poorer choice of defensive coordinators the second time than he did the first and we must be frank in evaluating Coach Martinez's performance in his present position.
Admittedly, we hold folks to a pretty high standard around here.
I have quoted this statistic before, but it bears repeating. Between 1892 and 1991, the Georgia Bulldogs scored 28 or more points in a losing effort just twice, in the 1949 Orange Bowl against Texas and in the 1986 Clemson game.
Between 1992 and 2006, however, the Georgia Bulldogs have scored 28 or more points and gone down to defeat 10 times. That's right . . . it has happened five times more frequently in the last 15 years than it did in the previous century.
Consider the final margins in each of these Georgia losses: 34-31 against Tennessee in 1992, 42-28 against Auburn in 1993, 29-28 against Alabama in 1994, 43-30 against Vanderbilt in 1994, 37-31 against Auburn in 1995, 45-34 against Auburn in 1997, 51-48 against Georgia Tech in 1999, 31-30 against Auburn in 2005, 38-35 against West Virginia in the 2006 Sugar Bowl, and 51-33 against Tennessee in 2006.
What lessons are to be learned from those numbers? Well, for one thing, it wouldn't hurt if we started playing defense against Auburn at home. (I hate Auburn.) It should be noted, though, that none of those high-scoring losses occurred while Brian VanGorder had an Athens mailing address.
In fact, while Coach VanGorder was stalking the sideline in Sanford Stadium, Georgia's 10 losses came in games in which the Bulldogs scored nine, 10, 17, 16, 13, 10, 13, 13, 14, and six points, respectively. Clearly, offensive woes, rather than defensive lapses, were to blame for the Red and Black's setbacks while Brian VanGorder was on the job.
Those were the days.
I understand the logic of promoting from within. Coach Martinez has a long history with Coach VanGorder and with Coach VanGorder's scheme. Willie Martinez succeeded Brian VanGorder as the defensive coordinator at Grand Valley State in 1992 and the two men coached together at Central Florida in 1995 and 1996, at Central Michigan in 1998 and 1999, and at Georgia from 2001 to 2004.
Nevertheless, facts are facts. Georgia has lost four games since Willie Martinez succeeded Brian VanGorder as defensive coordinator and, in those four games, the Bulldogs scored 10, 30, 35, and 33 points, respectively. I give Coach Martinez credit for last year's Florida game, in which the Gators were shut out after their first two drives.
However, when an S.E.C. team scores 30 points, it ought to win a football game. Such an outcome was guaranteed throughout much of Georgia football history. When W.A. Cunningham, Herman Stegeman, George Woodruff, Harry Mehre, Wally Butts, and Vince Dooley were coaching in Athens, the 'Dawgs never scored 30 points in a loss. When Brian VanGorder was in charge of the defense, it didn't happen under Mark Richt, either.
There have only been three periods of Georgia football history in which scoring 30 points did not absolutely assure the Red and Black of a win. One was when Ray Goff was our head coach. Another was when Jim Donnan was our head coach. The third was when Willie Martinez was our defensive coordinator.
Where else are we to lay the blame? Coach Martinez's staff consists of defensive ends coach Jon Fabris, defensive line coach Rodney Garner, and linebackers coach John Jancek, with Coach Martinez as defensive coordinator and secondary coach. Three of those four position coaches have had the same job responsibilities throughout the Mark Richt era. The absence of Coach VanGorder appears to be the crucial missing piece of the puzzle.
I'm not ready to buy the rights to FireWillieMartinez.com (although I am seriously considering setting up a website called HireDavidCutcliffe.com, so that some other school will offer him another head coaching opportunity), but there are problems that need to be addressed and they are within Coach Martinez's jurisdiction.
For whatever it might be worth, though, Will Muschamp is a University of Georgia alumnus with experience as a defensive coordinator in the Southeastern Conference. I'm just saying. (Photograph from Everything Alabama.)
In spite of my concerns, though, there is no dishonor in falling to a superior force and we simply lost to a top-tier team. Tennessee hammered what we now know to be a very good Cal team, lost narrowly to what we now know to be a very good Florida team, and came back to win convincingly against what I hope the Bulldogs' critics now know to be a pretty good Georgia team.
(I trust all of last week's nonsense about the 'Dawgs not being a top 25 team was rebutted by the re-emergence of the Red and Black offense. Since Georgia's inability to move the ball was the entire reason behind the overly harsh criticisms heaped upon the Bulldogs at Every Day Should Be Saturday and the Rakes of Mallow, I feel safe in saying that the Georgia-bashing should cease after the Classic City Canines scored 33 points on Tennessee, which has given up more than 30 points just twice since the 2004 S.E.C. championship game . . . once to Notre Dame last year and again to Georgia last night.)
We knew heading into the season that, after losing so much talent (both quantitatively and qualitatively) from last year's S.E.C. championship team, there would be some growing pains in 2006. We have been given glimpses of the possibilities that exist both on offense and on defense and, if the Red and Black can ever combine their best performances on both sides of the ball in a single game, this could be a team with which to be reckoned.