Both Texas A&M and Georgia had mediocre seasons in part due to defenses that consistently struggled, but that could make for an exciting offensive showcase as the Aggies and Bulldogs meet in the Independence Bowl in Shreveport, La., on Dec. 28.
While Texas A&M allowed more points (32.7) and total yards (431.3) per game than any other Big 12 team, Georgia’s defensive woes prompted coach Mark Richt to fire three of his assistants, including defensive coordinator Willie Martinez.
Martinez had spent nine seasons with the Bulldogs, but his defense has had problems ever since Georgia was ranked No. 1 in the 2008 preseason.
The Bulldogs allowed more than 40 points in each of their losses during a 10-3 season last year, and they have been even worse in 2009, permitting an average of 26.4 points to rank 10th in the SEC.
“It was definitely not a one-year, knee-jerk reaction to one season, I can promise you that,” Richt said of the personnel decisions. “It was more a decision that was made over the course of time, more time than just one year.”
Martinez, defensive ends coach Jon Fabris and linebackers coach John Jancek all declined an offer to coach Georgia (7-5) in a bowl game before their dismissal, leaving Richt and defensive line coach Rodney Garner in control of the defense.
“Obviously, it’s different,” Garner told Georgia’s official Web site. “I know it’s different for the players also, but like I told them, the only thing they can control is what happens between the lines no matter what you feel about. … What we’ve got to do is to be challenged to get these guys prepared to go to Shreveport and play probably one of the most prolific offenses we’ve faced all year.”
The Bulldogs will have a tough task in stopping Texas A&M’s Jerrod Johnson, who has thrown for 3,217 yards and 28 touchdowns with six interceptions while also rushing for 455 yards and eight scores.
The 6-foot-5 junior anchors the nation’s fifth-ranked offense, which racks up 465.3 yards per game and boasts a potent ground attack led by freshman Christine Michael and sophomore Cyrus Gray.
“We feel we can match up with anyone in the country,” Johnson said.
He nearly proved that in the regular-season finale Nov. 26 by throwing for 342 yards and four touchdowns in a 49-39 loss to Texas, which will play for the national championship. The Longhorns didn’t allow more than 24 points to any other opponent all season.
“I can’t say enough about Jerrod Johnson,” Texas A&M coach Mike Sherman said. “He’s probably under the radar for what he has been able to do.”
Texas A&M (6-6) allowed 597 total yards to Texas. The Aggies gave up more than 60 points in Big 12 losses to Kansas State and Oklahoma, and rank 107th nationally in total defense despite junior defensive end Von Miller leading the nation with 17 sacks.
That may help Georgia keep pace in senior quarterback Joe Cox’s final game. In his only season as the starter after he replaced No. 1 NFL draft pick Matthew Stafford, Cox has thrown for 2,426 yards and 22 touchdowns while being picked off 14 times.
Georgia has focused more on the run lately, averaging 252.0 yards on the ground in its last four games. The Bulldogs rushed for a season-high 339 in a 30-24 road upset of then-No. 7 Georgia Tech in their regular-season finale Nov. 28 - statistics Richt said he “never would have predicted.”
Freshman Washaun Ealey and sophomore Caleb King each averaged 9.2 yards per carry in that game, with King finding the end zone twice.
“We had a lot of success (running),” Ealey said. “I hope we do it a lot in the future.”
These teams have appeared in the Independence Bowl before. Texas A&M beat Oklahoma State in 1981 and lost to Mississippi State in 2000, while Georgia beat Arkansas in its only appearance in 1991.
The Bulldogs have won 12 of their last 15 bowl appearances. Texas A&M hasn’t been as successful in the postseason, losing 10 of its last 12 bowl games.