ATHENS, Ga. -- Todd Grantham made one point abundantly clear in 2010 as soon as he arrived at Georgia to become the Bulldogs' defensive coordinator. He was here to beat Florida, because beating the Gators is the jumping-off point for every goal the Bulldogs hope to achieve in any given season.
“When we go to recruit a guy, the first thing I ask is, 'Can we beat Florida with this guy?' Because if you beat Florida, your chance of winning the SEC East got a whole lot better,” Grantham said after Saturday's 23-20 win over Florida extended Georgia's series winning streak to three games.
Let's put that in perspective. The Georgia-Florida rivalry wasn't even competitive when Grantham joined Mark Richt's staff. Even Florida's mediocre teams found ways to win in Jacksonville -- like when the 2002 Gators who would finish with an 8-5 record handed Georgia its only loss that season and cost the Bulldogs a chance to play for the BCS title.
Dating back to 1990, Florida had won 17 out of 20 games against Georgia when Grantham arrived and seven of nine since Richt took over in 2001. And in the last two games in the series that Willie Martinez served as Georgia's defensive coordinator, Florida's 2008 and 2009 teams beat Georgia by a combined 90-27 margin.
The common theme in each of Georgia's three straight series wins, however? Grantham's defense made big plays when it mattered most and kept Florida out of the end zone. Although they did not turn the ball over on Saturday, the Gators totaled eight turnovers in the teams' previous two meetings, and they have scored just three offensive touchdowns in the last three meetings in Jacksonville.
“Like I said when I first came here, I think I understand who the fans want to beat when you're playing here, and I know that Florida's one of the teams that they want to beat,” Grantham said. “So that's why we make it a big game with our players. I think that's one of the reasons that we've had guys step up, meaning Jarvis [Jones] two years ago, Corey Moore made a play today. I've seen Damian Swann make a play, Amarlo [Herrera], Ramik [Wilson] – a lot of guys made some plays, but they know it's time to man up and go play.”
Perhaps the biggest defensive play of Saturday's win came midway through the fourth quarter, when Grantham decided to blitz safety Moore when Florida faced third-and-12 against the reeling Bulldogs. Moore tracked down Gators quarterback Tyler Murphy and sacked him for a 14-yard loss at the Florida 43-yard line. That forced the Gators to punt, and Georgia's offense was able to run out the clock on the ensuing possession and protect its narrow advantage.
“I really almost said to Coach Grantham, 'Go sic em. Go get em,' ” Richt said. “When I'm saying that, I'm saying, 'Bring the house. Bring more than they can block. Play man coverage with no safety help and let's just see what the heck happens.' Something big's going to happen one way or the other and I held my tongue on it, and he called the blitz. And I'm like, 'I'm with you 100 percent,' and I really was.”
Maybe that was a glimmer of hope for Grantham's young defenders. Earlier in the season, maybe they would not have successfully made that play. He pointed to the overtime win against Tennessee, where the Bulldogs were unable to slow down the Volunteers as they mounted a second-half rally, as a time when his defense wasn't tough enough.
“The other team's going to make plays and they're going to do things,” Grantham said. “But when that happens, you've got to have the mental toughness and the maturity to go put the fire out, and we preach to our guys all the time about, 'This is what you live for. Seize the moment. Enjoy the opportunity. Go make a play.' ”
Believe it or not -- and the fourth-year coordinator's detractors within Georgia's fan base will likely be stunned by this revelation -- Georgia has held all but one opponent (Tennessee) below its season average for total offense. And after yielding 400-plus yards in four of the first five games, the Bulldogs have held their last three opponents below the 400-yard mark and to an average of 68.5 yards per game below their season averages.
They're dead last in the SEC in scoring defense (31.6 ppg), however, in part because of frequent special-teams meltdowns and offensive mistakes deep in Georgia territory.
Georgia ranks 112th nationally and last in the SEC in opponent yards per point -- a statistic that divides the number of points a team allows by the yardage its opponent covered to score. The five teams that rank immediately behind Georgia's average (12.1) on that list have a combined 7-35 record this season: Cal (1-8), Colorado (3-5), Idaho (1-8), UTEP (1-7) and Iowa State (1-7).
Of course, Georgia's defense could always have made more stops after being placed in those bad positions. And the Bulldogs certainly could stand to become more effective on third down (they're 12th in the SEC, allowing opponents to convert 42.5 percent of the time).
But little by little, Grantham's defense is beginning to show some promise -- and perhaps Moore's sack is another sign that the light is flipping on for Georgia's defenders who lacked on-field experience when the season began.
“Part of the job as a coordinator is you've got to be aggressive in those situations and let the players go win the game,” Grantham said. “Individual performance wins the game. We put them in one-on-one matchups on that. We were in one-on-one matchups in coverage, we were in one-on-one matchups up front and the guys executed the call and we stopped them. ... In my mind, you want to end the game. That's what I wanted to do was end the game right there."