Georgia fans, particularly those who wistfully yearn for a return to the days of Herschel Walker, have been downright giddy lately.
Their No. 16 Bulldogs are succeeding, and they're doing it with a dominating running game that bulldozed Mississippi and Georgia Tech in convincing victories.
Though much of the fans' fascination centers on senior tailback Verron Haynes, who piled up a combined 399 rushing yards against the Rebels and Yellow Jackets, the defense is making the old-schoolers happy, too.
"This is what we talked about all year," said senior rover Jermaine Phillips, whose team plays host to winless Houston on Saturday at noon. "We kind of had it coming earlier this season, but we're finally starting to play like we knew we were capable of playing."
After having been fleeced for more than 500 yards per game during a four-game midseason stretch, the Bulldogs have made a resounding recovery. They held the Yellow Jackets to 242 total yards during last week's 31-17 win in Atlanta, and the week before they dismantled a potent Rebel offense in a 35-15 scorching.
"That's about what I was expecting from coach VanGorder when I hired him," Georgia head coach Mark Richt said of first-year defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder. "He's not a guy who is going to put a cookie-cutter defense out there. He does a great job, along with our staff, of really dissecting what teams do and taking away what they do best."
For most of the past four seasons, when Georgia has employed four defensive coordinators, opposing offenses performed most of the dissecting. The Bulldogs seldom have been short on speed or talent, but melding those qualities into a consistent force has been difficult.
Georgia (7-3, 5-3 Southeastern Conference) entered this season without four players who are now in the NFL, but four of its top five tacklers returned.
The Bulldogs looked fabulous in their second game, a 14-9 home loss to South Carolina, but it took a while for them to duplicate the intensity that clogged rushing lanes and pressured the quarterback that night.
Georgia surrendered 501 yards a game against Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Kentucky and Florida, despite winning three of the four. The Bulldogs unraveled against the Gators, who rolled up 584 yards and averaged 8 yards per play in a 24-10 win.
The defense played well in a 24-17 loss to Auburn but was undone by poor tackling, giving up 167 rushing yards to Carnell Williams.
Then, something changed. The Bulldogs held Mississippi to 28 yards rushing, and Georgia Tech mustered 63 - 37 of which came on a third-quarter scoring run by Joe Burns.
Phillips, in his second season on defense after spending two years as a receiver, said improved tackling is the key.
"That's the biggest weakness of a team if it can't tackle," he said. "We knew if we kept swarming, good things would happen."
The about-face has been accomplished despite considerable shuffling on the defensive line. Starting end Bruce Adrine was lost before the Auburn game with a season-ending knee injury, and starting tackle David Jacobs suffered a stroke two weeks ago and has been in a hospital bed since.
Said Phillips: "We always say that when you lose a part of your body, the other parts get stronger."
Reach Larry Williams at (706) 823-3645.
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