SHREVEPORT, La. - SHREVEPORT, La. (AP) — Mark Richt spent most of the season worrying about the Georgia defense. With only one full-time defensive assistant still on staff entering the Independence Bowl, Richt had reason to be even more concerned.
Then the beleaguered Bulldogs defense picked off two passes by Jerrod Johnson to end Texas A&M threats in the third quarter Monday, and allowed only two touchdowns against one of the nation's hottest offenses in a 44-20 victory.
"I think we probably need to start out by saying what a fantastic job our defensive coaches did," said Richt, who made the long anticipated move of firing defensive coordinator Willie Martinez and two other defensive assistants after the regular season.
They declined Richt's invitation to stick around through the bowl.
"We just wanted to show the world that even though we lost most of our coaching staff we could still come out and play," said defensive end Geno Atkins, who blocked a field goal.
Assistant head coach and defensive line coach Rod Garner, a former all-SEC player from Auburn who's been at Georgia (8-5) since 1998, stepped into the void with some help from graduate assistants Mitch Doolittle and Todd Hartley.
Richt set the parameters — keep it simple and familiar — and the coaches took it from there.
"It's satisfying to see young coaches get an opportunity and do what they were able to do," said Richt, who is still searching for replacements. "One of my big concerns was how the players were going to react to the young coaches and the situation, and there was never a moment when I felt like the defensive players didn't rally around all of that."
Georgia's defense was stingy early, holding Texas A&M (6-7) in its own territory for much of the first half. It took a couple of big special teams plays after Johnson took the Aggies down for their first score with 2:33 left before halftime.
"The kick return that I had I really couldn't take credit for that," Boykin said. "The kick was short and my blocking, I felt like it parted just like the Red Sea."
The return hardly qualified as a miracle, but it was just what the Bulldogs needed.
Fifty-six seconds later Georgia blocked a punt, setting up another touchdown, and a game that was supposed to be an offensive showdown turned into yet another contest decided by the unit most folks usually forget about.
"The bottom line is you've got offense, defense and special teams and you hope to win 2 out of the 3 phases," Richt said. "We could've been down 14-0 if it weren't for the special teams and who knows what would've happened after that."
Georgia blocked two kicks and Joe Cox threw his first touchdown pass after the snap sailed over the Texas A&M punter's head in the third quarter. In all, special teams play led to 24 points for the Georgia, which also got a 49-yard field goal from Blair Walsh.
"It was a huge swing," Texas A&M coach Mike Sherman said. "When you talk about the kickoff return, the ball sailing over our punter's head, the blocked punt, the blocked field goal, there's 24 points there possibly. Special team miscues was a huge part of the game that you can't get back."
Cox hit offensive MVP Aron White on touchdown passes of 24 and 2 yards in the second half and the Bulldogs scored a bowl record 30 points in the final two quarters for their fourth straight postseason victory.
It was the fourth straight postseason loss for the Aggies, who have not won a bowl game since 2001.
Christine Michael scored from 14 yards out on Texas A&M's first drive of the second half and seemed to have the Aggies rolling again. Their next three drives were disastrous, though.
The first ended on the botched snap over the punter's head, which gave Georgia the ball at the Texas A&M 24. Three plays later, Cox hit White with a touch pass down the middle of the field with a rusher in his face to make it 24-14. Johnson threw interceptions on consecutive drives after that.
Georgia was unable to score the first time, but Reshad Jones' 59-yard interception return on the second gave the Bulldogs the ball at the Aggies 28.
Five plays later, Cox faked the handoff from the 2, rolled right on a naked bootleg and found the wide-open White in the right corner of the end zone for a 31-14 lead.
Caleb King, who scored twice, and Shaun Chapas tacked on rushing scores in the fourth quarter to pad Georgia's lead and gave the Bulldogs a share of the bowl record with six touchdowns scored.
The Bulldogs improved to 7-2 in bowls under Richt. More importantly they salvaged some joy from a season that didn't go as expected.
"With the year we had it could've ended up a lot worse if we'd lost this game," Cox said.