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Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Looking Back No. 7: Willie's Got to Go

When the weight of Georgia's lofty preseason expectations came crashing down, it fell hardest on defensive coordinator Willie Martinez.

In truth, there were plenty of reasons Georgia's season turned sour, but the for fans who had spent the offseason dreaming of a national championship, someone needed to be held accountable. By year's end, the Bulldogs had allowed 38 or more points in four of their final five games, putting the target for fans' ire squarely on the chest of Martinez.

Following a devastating 49-10 loss to Florida and a near upset at the hands of sputtering Kentucky, the anti-Martinez sentiment reached its crescendo, and head coach Mark Richt fired back.

"People don't get it," Richt said. "People think they know, but they don't. I'd love to say that if people really knew football, they'd know 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."

It was a rare critique of Bulldog Nation by Richt, but his fierce loyalty to his staff superseded any sentiment to remain quiet. That same loyalty, however, put Richt on notice among the most vocal proponents of the anti-Martinez movement, many of whom believed the head coach didn't have the stomach to hand a pink slip to one of his close friends.

Still, there were points in Martinez's favor, too.

Georgia's offense had turned the ball over with regularity against Florida and Kentucky, putting the defense on its heels as soon as they set foot on the field. Several special-teams gaffes further hindered Martinez's unit, which had begun the season as one of the top defense's in the country. In fact, it was the defense that bailed the Bulldogs out against South Carolina, and it was Martinez's crew that held Tennessee to just one rushing yard.

That rationale, however, wouldn't win over many fans after Georgia's regular-season finale. With two weeks to prepare for Georgia Tech's triple option offense, the Bulldogs' defense looked utterly confused at times, and the Yellow Jackets ran up more than 400 yards on the ground en route to a 45-42 upset of the Bulldogs.

Afterward, Martinez said his unit had simply lacked the fundamentals and the character to win the game.

"I think leadership has a lot to do with it," he said. "And it starts with me. You have to feed that down to your players, and I take full responsibility for that. We've just got to get better. "

In the minds of a heavy contingent of message board posters and talk radio callers, getting better started with getting rid of Martinez. Georgia's defense went from leading the SEC in sacks in 2007 to finishing last in that category in 2008. The unit that had held opponents to an average of 60 rushing yards per game through seven games watched that figure triple in its final five contests. Georgia finished 10th in the SEC in scoring defense.

Worse than the numbers in many fans' eyes, however, were the underlying problems -- missed tackles, missed assignments, missed opportunities.

Of course, where the blame for those problems really belonged is still a topic of some debate.

"At the end of the day, we're the ones on the field, and the way we play and how many points go up, that's our resume and that's a testament to how much work we're putting in and how much we prepare," linebacker Rennie Curran said. "If we're not succeeding, it's not only Coach Martinez that's taking a hit, it's us as a defense. We're all in it together."

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