"Get the Ball, Dawgs, Get the Ball!" is a Georgia cheer for, I believe, the basketball team. I'm sure many of you have heard it before and, at least on an occasion or two, chanted it along with the Bulldog cheerleaders. It's one of those cheers you find yourself reciting hours after a game has ended only to fully realize it when someone else points out your cheering is annoying. Nevertheless, it should be the motto for the upcoming football season. For it was Georgia's lack of "getting the ball" in '08 that was the main factor, in my opinion, for a somewhat disappointing year.
After last season's 45-42 loss to Georgia Tech, it seemed so simple: our defense was atrocious at times and above average, at best. Sure, the defensive unit had suffered a bevy of injuries, however, the fact remained it could not keep the opposition out of the end zone. From the 2006 Sugar Bowl against West Virginia (the first season of Willie Martinez as defensive coordinator, many Dawg fans would add) through the '08 Tech loss, a total of 39 games, Georgia allowed its opponent to score 35 points or more in 8 contests, including five times in a span of only eight games in 2008. In comparison, prior to the loss to West Virginia, it had been 77 games and more than six years since the last time the Bulldogs allowed 35 points or more (1999 vs. Georgia Tech)!
Further inspection into 2008 reveals something interesting: Georgia's defense allowed only 312 yards per game (ranked 22nd out of 119 FBS teams)--that's actually pretty good. However, it ranked 59th in scoring defense, yielding 24.5 points per game--the Bulldogs' highest average since 1999 and the seventh most in the school's 115 seasons of playing football.
Surely, Georgia's opponents scored a good portion of its points via non-offensive touchdowns, you ask? Nope. Only once in '08 did the opposition cross our goal line in a manner besides the run or pass--Georgia Tech's Morgan Burnett's interception return of Stafford for a touchdown.
So, how did the Georgia defense in '08 allow a reasonable low amount of yardage but yet give up so many points? There were several contributing factors. The top two being Georgia's poor kickoff coverage and simply the Bulldogs did not force enough turnovers, only 16 total (11 interceptions, five fumbles) in 13 games (Photo--Dobbs game-winning INT vs. Kentucky--GeorgiaDogs.com).
Last season, it appears the Bulldogs could somewhat contain opposing offenses from moving up and down the field but had their issues jarring the ball loose or intercepting passes. Of the 119 FBS teams, only seven forced less than 16 turnovers. Complete team football statistics date back to 1947 in UGA's archives and no Bulldogs team from 1947-2007 forced equal to or less than the 16 turnovers tallied by the 2008 squad. Based on the fact that turnovers occurred much more often in the early days of football than the later, it is safe to say last season's Georgia defense gained less turnovers than any team in the school's football history.
Several questions loom as the Bulldogs get ready for the 2009 season: Can Joe Cox fill in adequately for the departed Matt Stafford? Can we establish a respectable ground game? Can we put pressure on and sack opposing quarterbacks with more regularity? Nonetheless, I truly feel if the Dawgs can improve their kickoff coverage and, most importantly, "get the ball" much more often than last season, we should be in for a better year than most expect.
In 2004, Georgia forced only 17 turnovers (12 fumbles, 5 interceptions) in a previous, somewhat disappointing season. I remember the first game of the next year, the Bulldogs surprisingly intercepted four Boise State passes in the season opener of 2005--nearly as many as the total from the entire 2004 season. Georgia would crush Boise State and eventually capture the SEC title when the so-called "experts" gave the Bulldogs no shot to even win the division. In 2009, forcing turnovers and plenty of them in the season-opening game would get the ball rolling (pun intended) and could spell success for the upcoming year ahead.