Two years ago, the head coaches at Georgia and Georgia Tech, both with offensive backgrounds, fired their respective defensive coordinators.
So ended the frequent lampooning of Willie Martinez in Athens and the most often heard question at Tech, “What idiot is coaching Paul Johnson’s defense?” (His name was Dave Wommack.)
As Georgia and Georgia Tech prepare to face each other again Saturday, it’s easy to see that the biggest difference between the programs is defense.
The Bulldogs rank fourth nationally in total defense, 11th in scoring, ninth in takeaways and second in third-down percentage.
The Jackets, in those respective categories, rank 43rd, 56th, 52nd and 89th.
Now, it would be an oversimplification to say Todd Grantham is succeeding in his job and Al Groh isn’t. Grantham has better players. But after seeing some progress on defense, Tech has allowed 68 points and 827 yards in the past two weeks against Virginia Tech and Duke, which doesn’t equate to a gold star on Groh’s late-season resume.
Saturday’s game could go a long way toward affirming direction for both coordinators and, it follows, both programs.
It’s easy to diminish the Bulldogs’ defensive accomplishments because of a soft schedule. That won’t be an issue against Tech. The Dogs may have won two of three against the Jackets since Johnson’s arrival, but they really haven’t stopped his option offense.
Consider last season. Georgia won 42-34, but the Jackets rushed for 411 yards and had 512 total. They nearly doubled the Bulldogs in first downs (32-18) and offensive plays (92-48). They held the ball for over 38 minutes. The difference in the game: Tech’s three fumbles (all leading to touchdowns) and a missed extra-point attempt (allowing Georgia to hold a 35-34 lead until Washaun Ealey’s touchdown with 1:29 left.)
When Mark Richt left the field in Athens, you could hear him exhale in Bogart.
It follows that when Richt was asked if he expected Grantham’s defense to fare better the second time around against Tech’s option, he responded, “I don’t know. I just wouldn’t predict it. If you saw that offense week after week after week after week and not just once a year, I suppose we could get pretty good at it. But to think all of a sudden that we’re going to hook it up and be good at defending it, I wouldn’t bet on that.
“Their offense is just extremely difficult to stop. It makes every possession so much more precious than normal. … The quarterback is a runner, so everybody on our defense has a very strict responsibility. If you make a mistake against this team, that’s when the really big plays happen. Against other teams, you can make a mistake and have a free safety there to clean up the mess.”
The Dogs have held seven of their past nine opponents to 16 or fewer points. But Tech’s offense has averaged nearly 37 points and has been held under 21 just once (24-7 loss at Miami).
Groh has two problems: 1) His defense has been dented in two games since an upset of Clemson; 2) Even if Georgia plays without (or with a hobbled) Isaiah Crowell, quarterback Aaron Murray is playing his best football of the season and effectively spreading the ball around.
Groh signed a two-year contract. He hasn’t yet spoken publicly about whether he plans to come back next season.
Grantham signed a three-year contract. His agent already is pushing for an extension, earlier than athletic director Greg McGarity would like, and is making noises about other opportunities.
So in a sense, the futures of both are uncertain. Maybe one is looking for a sign and the other is looking for leverage. This game could provide either.
By Jeff Schultz