Defense key for Texas A&M, Georgia in Indy Bowl
By CHRIS TALBOTT, Associated Press Writer
SHREVEPORT, La. (AP) — Texas A&M defensive back Jordan Pugh is sick of hearing about it.
On TV, in the paper, at his favorite restaurant, all anyone wants to talk about is all the points that will be scored when the Aggies play Georgia in Monday’s Independence Bowl.
“That’s all you hear,” Pugh said Sunday. “They talk about the offense every day. As a defense, we’re going to be out on the field, too.”
Of course, there’s a good reason for all that talk of a high-scoring affair.
Texas A&M (6-6) has given up 30 or more points eight times this season and more than 60 points twice. The Aggies’ opponents averaged 32.7 points per game, 104th out of 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams.
Georgia (7-5) was a touchdown better, giving up 26.4 ppg. But that ranked the Bulldogs an unaccustomed 10th in the Southeastern Conference and led to the firing of three defensive assistants, including defensive coordinator Willie Martinez.
The Independence Bowl gives each defense a chance to prove it’s no pushover.
“You’ve got to look forward to that,” Pugh said.
Neither Georgia coach Mark Richt nor Texas A&M coach Mike Sherman expects 10 touchdowns Monday. Each team has had the chance to prepare for the opponent over several weeks and those extra practices mean more experience. And Sherman’s been part of plenty of games where big numbers were predicted yet never happened.
“My experience has been when people talk about offensive matchups it’s always been kind of a disappointment because the defense usually rises to the occasion in those games,” Sherman said. “I don’t know how many times you guys have written about an offensive matchup and it turns out to be a defensive battle.”
The Aggies’ defensive troubles can be explained away by youth and inexperience. Sherman played 18 freshmen this season — the second most in the nation — and 14 of the 22 players on the defense’s two-deep depth chart are underclassmen.
The Bulldogs’ plight is a little harder to get a handle on and just how they’ll respond to the loss of Martinez and the other assistants remains to be seen.
The trio of fired coaches turned down Richt’s invitation to remain with the team through the bowl, leaving just one full-time assistant and two graduate assistants to help prepare a gameplan and run practices.
“My main role on the defense was to try to set some parameters with the defensive staff,” Richt said, “to say, ‘Look, let’s not reinvent the wheel, let’s try not to do some things that our guys aren’t comfortable with. Let’s do what we do, let’s get a plan that is sound and hopefully as simple as possible, so we can put our players in position to make the plays.'”
Richt, a former offensive coordinator, sat in on defensive meetings, mostly to keep an eye on morale and attitude. He even relied on injured senior defensive end Roderick Battle to step into a coaching role from time to time.
“He worked some with the defensive ends,” Richt said. “But I think a lot of our guys stepped up and made sure everybody was hustling, made sure everybody was paying attention, made sure we kept our attention on what’s important.”
And what’s important when it comes to defending Texas A&M is stopping Jerrod Johnson, who set 11 school records in a breakthrough season he’d love to crown with Texas A&M’s first bowl win since 2001.
Johnson completed 60 percent of his passes for 3,217 yards with 28 touchdowns against just six interceptions. He added another 455 yards rushing and eight scores.
“That’s just fantastic production,” Richt said.
Johnson displayed how dangerous he can be in a 49-39 loss to Texas on Thanksgiving. Johnson threw for 342 yards and four touchdowns and ran for another 97. Add in running back Christine Michael, who rushed for 767 yards and 5.1 yards per carry, and receiver Uzoma Nwachukwu, who averaged 18.1 yards per catch, and the Aggies are a handful as the Bulldogs angle for their fourth straight postseason victory.
“As simple as you might want to make the gameplan defensively, when there’s that many personnel groups, that many changes of formations and the pace at which they go, it creates problems and the biggest problem we have in practice is trying to simulate it,” Richt said. “It’s impossible to do, so I’m sure in the game it will be important just to get used to the tempo.”