Late-Season Redemption?

ATHENS – Had the stars been aligned differently, perhaps Georgia's dreams of a national championship would still be intact. Had the Bulldogs remained healthy, had a few bounces gone the other way, had the defense held its own, things might have been different.

As it stands, however, Georgia's date with Michigan State in the Capital One Bowl still seems a bit like fate. For all their failures this season, the Bulldogs couldn't have asked for a better opportunity at late-season redemption.

"They don't like to do anything too fancy, they just like to pound it," linebacker Rennie Curran said. "It's a good opportunity for us to establish ourselves at the end of the season on a national level and set the tempo for next year. It's another opportunity to show the nation what we're about as a defense and re-establish ourselves."

What Michigan State does best is what Georgia had the most difficulty stopping as its season spiraled downward in the final five games of the year. The Spartans run the ball, and that has been the Achilles' heal during the Bulldogs' fall from glory.

Of course, that hasn't always been the case. Through seven games, Georgia was among the best in the nation at stopping the run.

The Bulldogs were holding opponents to just 61 yards per game on the ground. In early September, South Carolina mustered 18 rushing yards. A week later, Arizona State scratched out just four yards rushing. Three weeks after that, Georgia allowed one lone yard on the ground to Tennessee. The Bulldogs' defense was a brick wall for opposing runners.

And then it all changed.

Almost overnight, Georgia's defense was exposed. It allowed 188 yards rushing to LSU, 185 to Florida, more ugly numbers against Kentucky and Auburn. The final crushing blow then came in the form of Georgia Tech's triple option, which tallied an embarrassing 409 yards of rushing offense – the most allowed by a Georgia team in 14 years.

"I really don't know what happened," defensive tackle Corvey Irvin said. "I'm still asking myself that today how that happened. I guess we just lost our composure, lost our swagger against the run, and that kicked us in the butt."

Explanations are hard to come by for the Bulldogs, who had taken pride in a defense designed to make the opponent one-dimensional.

It wasn't about a change in philosophy or an injury to a key player, defensive end Rod Battle said. One week, his team was superb at stopping the run, and the next, they weren't.

"I can't really point to one thing," Battle said. "It's just football, I guess. Sometimes you're successful at something, and people pick up on what you're doing and switch what they're doing. You get spells of being successful and unsuccessful."

Opponents may have made some adjustments, but for the most part, teams offered few surprises. Auburn and LSU employed a power running attack. Kentucky and Auburn boasted athletic quarterbacks who dashed out of the pocket regularly. Each met with the same success against the Georgia defense.

The more likely cause for the precipitous decline for the Bulldogs was the wear and tear of a long season – one that began with a bevy of injuries to the defensive ends, a season-ending ACL tear for their best interior lineman and a midseason injury to middle linebacker Dannell Ellerbe. No one injury proved too much to overcome, but by year's end, the sum of all the bumps and bruises had taken a toll.

"We started camp with a lot of injuries, and those things get healed, but then you get back as soon as you can, and the wear and tear kind of breaks you down as the season goes on," Battle said.

The extended break from action leading up to Georgia's bowl meeting with Michigan State was a welcome reprieve for the Bulldogs, who will have 33 days off between games.

The extra time is being put to good use, Irvin said – both in terms of healing some nagging injuries and refocusing on the fundamentals they had been sorely lacking.

"It's going to help us get our legs back," Irvin said. "We can prepare more, watch more film, go over their plays and work on our fundamentals against the run."

That's where the fateful date with Michigan State comes back to the forefront.

The late-season struggles have been an embarrassing source of frustration for the Bulldogs, but the Spartans present a final shot at redemption.

Michigan State averages nearly 140 yards per game on the ground, led by All-American running back Javon Ringer, who has rushed for 1,590 yards this season. The Spartans will line up and dare Georgia to stop them – something the Bulldogs haven't been able to do in far too long.

A win won't erase the memories of Georgia Tech's 409-yard day, but it will go a long way toward washing away the bitter taste of a season that fell apart in the blink of an eye for Georgia's top run defenders. So while it isn't a BCS bowl, it's an opportunity the Bulldogs are happy to have.

"This is going to be great for us," Irvin said. "It's going to be a challenge to see what Georgia's all about."

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