As Georgia kissed any hope of winning a national championship goodbye, many of the faithful were wishing they could do likewise to their defensive coordinator.
Todd Grantham may not have been the most unpopular man in Athens on Saturday after Georgia’s 41-26 loss to Missouri. But he was certainly in the top five.
Grantham gets paid a hefty salary as Georgia’s secretary of defense, much of it added after alleged flirtations with other employment after last season. On Saturday, angry Georgia supporters wished he had taken the money and run.
Georgia fans have had a long love affair with their defense, and they expect all units to live up to the reputation established by their forebears.
Long-time coach Wally Butts built his reputation as an offensive innovator well ahead of his time. But once Vince Dooley arrived and conservatism ruled the day on offense, Georgia relied ever more on Erk Russell’s defense.
And a proud defense it was. One that inspired nicknames. The Junkyard Dawgs fought you for every yard of turf surrendered. Yes, there were days when Erk’s defense got lit up, but not often. You had faith in them. You respected them. You always felt that, come crunch time, they would make the big play or force the crucial turnover.
Now, not quite so much. Georgia fans would love to see their defense jog off the field after third down, as opposed to after a score.
To be fair, the faithful need to remember that this is a brand new defense. John Chavis, the defensive coordinator at LSU, has earned immense respect during his years in the SEC. He, likewise, had to replace his entire unit in Baton Rouge this season. You saw how Georgia tore up his defense a few weeks ago.
So, is the Georgia defense merely suffering growing pains? Will playing time for the new defenders cure their ills? Or does Grantham need to follow Willie Martinez and exit, stage right?
“I think that when you look at our team, we’re a young team that does some good things,” Grantham told Ethan Burch of the Athens Banner-Herald after Saturday’s cover-your-eyes performance. “I think anytime you’ve got young guys there’s going to be a lapse or two or a thing that can extend a drive or create a seam or allow them to make some plays.”
That would explain how backup quarterback Maty Mauk came off the bench to lead Missouri to two fourth-quarter touchdowns after Georgia cut a 28-10 halftime deficit down to 28-26 early in the fourth quarter.
That would also explain how the Tigers scored on a 40-yard double-pass, as L’Damian Washington caught a touchdown over Georgia’s Shaq Wiggins.
“We need to execute better,” Wiggins told cstv.com. “We need to play better when it counts.”
So much for the thought that any play can be the one that changes the game.
When Grantham took over for Martinez after the 2009 season, he immediately brought the Georgia defense back into attack mode. Pass defense, scoring defense, and total defense all improved.
The next year, Grantham’s defense became a monster, finishing the 2011 season 23rd in the nation in scoring, but fifth in total defense.
A year ago, the perception was that the defense seemed to regress. But it wound up 18th in the nation in scoring defense, and 32nd in total defense. Notably, it seemed that every week down the stretch, Grantham’s halftime adjustments turned Georgia’s defense up a notch.
This year the numbers are awful. There’s no way to sugarcoat it. Yes, the unit is new, but they are all highly-rated recruits, recruited to play defense at Georgia, a team with national championship aspirations.
Out of 123 teams, this Georgia defense ranks 105th in scoring defense, allowing 33.7 points per game. Yes, they’ve faced some high-octane offenses. They’ve also faced North Texas and Tennessee.
Now try these rankings: total defense, 65; passing defense, 96; pass efficiency defense, 104; interceptions, 119 (tied for last); red zone defense, 108; third-down conversions, 97. Georgia’s rushing defense does rank 36th, perhaps because it’s so easy to pass.
“To me, third down is the number one priority to reduce points,” Grantham told Burch. “That’s the big issue, obviously. You’ve got to be able to get on them and cover them and break the ball up and challenge the throw.”
Looking for positives? Grantham again: “I don’t see anything wrong with the effort,” he told Burch. “They keep competing, and it’s more a matter of execution and getting some experience.”
Need more? The guy whose job is ultimately tied to Grantham’s success still has faith: “I believe we’re going to keep getting better,” head coach Mark Richt told Burch. “I believe we’re going to have the type of defense people are proud of. But it takes time.”
At least half a season.
Denton Ashway is a contributing columnist for The Times. His columns appear Wednesday.