At the height of a crescendo of discontent among fans with Georgia's defensive execution this season, head coach Mark Richt defended his defensive coordinator much as a junkyard dog defends its lot.
"People don't get it," Richt explained back in November after a another gashing of a Georgia defense in Lexington.
It was the third consecutive game in which his defense had surrendered north of 38 points. The coach's words were used to call out those who were targeting Willie Martinez with their angst-ridden rants.
"People think they know, but they don't," Richt said. "...We'd been blitzing, they'd know we'd been playing zone, playing cover one, playing robber, fire zone. If they really knew football, they wouldn't be saying the things they say, but they don't."
And, at the time, the words seemed mostly defensive—at best, a head coach defending a longtime friend and colleague; at worst, a desperate attempt to ignore the numbers.
Before Martinez took over, the defense had been the backbone of success under the Richt regime. Since Brian Van Gorder left Athens, the numbers have steadily gone in the other direction, specifically points per game. And a horrible showing against an in-state rival to end the season had only fanned the flames that burned in Dawg fans' eyes.
Fast forward to yesterday's Capital One Bowl, a 24-12 win for Georgia.
In a game that spotlighted two Doak Walker finalists, it was the two defensive units that shined brighter. The Spartan defense held a star-studded Georgia offense to three points in the first half and made the supposed NFL top draft pick in 2009 look bewildered and befuddled.
In fact, Matthew Stafford's best play of the first half was arguably a tackle he helped to make after an interception. It saved a touchdown and the Dawg defense took over from there, holding the Spartans to a field goal.
In a game that was billed as a professional stepping stone for a couple red and black stars in Stafford and Knowshon Moreno, it was the Georgia defense that carried the team until the offense and the special teams woke up from a New Year's stupor.
There was a physicality and a toughness from the Dawgs unit that produced big hits, solid tackles, and sacks galore. All told, they would rack up six sacks, an interception, and, most importantly, limit Spartan running back Javon Ringer to just 2.4 yards per carry and 47 yards on the ground.
Indeed, this day truly belonged to Martinez's unit. The game itself was a microcosm of a season that was riddled with injuries, penalties and miscues that continually put the Georgia defenders in tough positions. An interception that put the Spartan offense to work six yards from the goal line. A punt that never evolved into itself. A sideline populated by an ever-growing number of players wearing black wind pants in lieu of silver britches.
Each time Martinez's unit was called upon it was able to deliver. Every time its backs were against the wall, they fought their way out with tenacity. Against an inspired Michigan State team, Willie Martinez thanked his boss for his November words by trotting out a defense that played with a rancor reminiscent of the glory days under legendary Erk Russell.
The offseason will not erase the loss to Florida from the minds of Georgia fans. Seven months away from Sanford Stadium will not take away the taste of the loss to Goergia Tech at home.
But on the first day of 2009, Martinez repaid his boss for defending him against an ever-increasing percentage of the Bulldog Nation.
On a day when AJ Green and Mohammed Massaquoi were limited to a catch apiece, Martinez had five players record a sack. In a bowl that was set up for individual performances, the Dawg defense played as one unit, united in their ferocity and mentality.
They simply played as if their actions were more salient than their head coach's words.
And to this Dawg fan, it spoke volumes.
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