Sunday, September 16, 2007

Ready, sweat, rock: Austin City Limits 2007

Returning to Austin has meant a return to the short hiatus from college football I take at the mid-point of September to take in the Austin City Limits music festival. Usually, Georgia is tuning up on a cupcake (like Western Carolina this year) and Florida and Tennessee are tangling in what, to me, amounts, to an annual Blimp Crash Bowl (so dubbed for the best possible outcome of such a retina-searing assembly of orange). So I let the DVR do its thang while I get my rock on.

Also, as next year's ACL likely will find me either changing diapers or attending to a very pregnant wife (not announcing anything here, just stating what's on the '08 agenda), this year's ACL could be my last for a while. Which is fine. In general, as I move farther from my 20s, I'm less and less enchanted with outdoor music festivals, particularly the variety that involve 65,000 people and late-summer central Texas heat, both of which ACL brings with a fury.

But while those factors have always presented a tolerance hurdle, ACL, now in its sixth year, always rewards your effort. ACL is consistently one of the best-run festivals I've ever attended and there's probably not a better bang for your buck anywhere: a three-day pass costs less than $200 (even less than $100 if you get in on it early) and gets you lineups as outstanding as this year's, which featured Bob Dylan, Arcade Fire, Wilco, My Morning Jacket, Arctic Monkeys, Steve Earle, The National, Bloc Party, Spoon, the Killers, Bjork, Stephen Marley, Damien Rice, Muse, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Beau Soleil and several dozen others. So impressive was the lineup that cancellations by the White Stripes and Amy Winehouse went practically unnoticed. Past ACLs have featured R.E.M., the Pixies, Al Green, Coldplay, Elvis Costello, Broken Social Scene and much more.

The festival takes place across seven stages in Zilker Park, which has more than enough acreage to handle the crowds and the ingress and egress is a hell of a lot less painful than some of the cattle drives I've been herded through to see music. There's bus service all over town, an adjacent bike park and throngs of rickshaws, all of which serve to diffuse traffic so effectively that ACL bears no resemblance whatsoever to the endless phalanxes of cars that creep with glacial speed into Manchester, Tenn., for Bonnarroo. With its streams of bicycles, mopeds, rickshaws and pedestrians, Barton Springs Road last night resembled a street in Bangkok or Saigon. But unlike Bangkok, Saigon or Bonnaroo, ACL leaves a considerably narrower carbon footprint, from the biodiesel-powered generators to the recycled toilet paper in the porta-potties.

Perhaps due to the demographics of the ACL acts' fanbases (and the fact that they're not being treated like livestock), there's a kind of group consideration and respectfulness among ACL festival-goers that seemed remarkable in comparison to some of the chaotic festivals I've read about and participated in. My wife and I strolled easily in and out of ACL on Friday night with tens of thousands of other attendees who, by and large, evidenced none of the irritability that comes with milling about for several hours in 100-degree temps. We remarked that this cooperative atmosphere sadly wouldn't be possible in my wife's hometown of Memphis, where the Beale Street Music Festival has been marred racial, adolescent and drug/alcohol-fueled shenanigans and the kind of general idiocy that lends steep irony to the book title The Wisdom of Crowds. As ACL showed, enjoying good music with lots of people who also appreciate music is a practical, simple matter: you don't need to be bought in to some hippie utopian communal dogma to know how not to be a dick at a rock show.

And, yeah, in case I under-emphasized this, it's hot. Real hot. The dearth of trees in Zilker Park makes for great site lines, but, between noon and 6:30 p.m., it also makes you feel like you're an ant under some giant kid's magnifying glass. Based on crowd attire, I'm not sure the average Texan is aware that black attracts light, such as the burning variety beaming down from that fiery orb in the sky known as the sun, or that denim isn't what you'd call "breathable." That said, it's hard work looking cool, especially if you can't leave it at just being a state of mind. Wearing an all-white polypro t-shirt, polypro boxers and linen shorts, I probably dropped close to five pounds in water weight, so I can't imagine what these idiots in black jeans, boots and black shirts were going through. Fortunately, there's a gazillion drink stands, some water misters at the festival; plus the WaMu Tent, aside from some great gospel, blues and zydeco, also features shade, blessed shade.

Really, the hardest thing about ACL is the musical tradeoffs. Before the White Stripes cancelled, you were going to have to choose between seeing them and Arcade Fire for the Saturday closer. Tonight's show, which I'm missing due to business travel (yeah, but it's to San Francisco, a merciful change of weather), forces you to choose between My Morning Jacket and Wilco. Like South By Southwest, you're dogged by the feeling that, no matter how rockin' the show is you're attending, people are getting their minds blown a few stages over.

Regardless, you are bound to be treated to some pretty transcendent moments, like last night's Arcade Fire set. Like fellow Canadians Broken Social Scene, the Fire feature roughly a dozen people onstage playing a lot of unconventional instruments for rock 'n' roll, with each band member rocking out so aggressively that it's like watching a band with a dozen frontmen – impossible to fully digest all at once. They can be sublime, but rarely are they subtle.

In a smirking reference to the title of their latest long-player, Neon Bible, Arcade Fire took the stage under a widely viewed YouTube clip of the female televangelist notoriously exhorting her audience to take "an enema of the holy spirit … straight up the rear."

Arcade Fire opened their set with Neon Bible's first track, "Black Mirror," kicking off a stream of swooping, anthemic mini-symphonies arranged with violins, French horn, tuba and church organ along with the traditional guitar, bass, drums, percussion and keyboards. And while the Killers did a compelling job of kicking up vaguely high school drama the night before, it still seemed like adolescent bluster when contrasted with Arcade Fire's soaring hymns to deceased family and friends, existential angst and all the other Big Questions that roil with fear, exaltation, dread, hope, etc. With fraught song titles like "My Body is a Cage" and "Une Année Sans Lumière" ("A Year without Light"), Arcade Fire's music is the kind of big, Gothic sound instantly recognizable as something that demands to be played in arenas but, due to commercial interests, rarely is. Thankfully and as always, ACL delivered the appropriate venue at nightfall Saturday.


Sunday, September 09, 2007

Game 2: “Frankly, I don't want to talk about it.”

Years ago, in response to a Georgia loss to Georgia Tech, Lewis Grizzard made syndicated newspaper history, publishing a column that was almost empty, save for declaration above.

When South Carolina intercepted a Matt Stafford pass in the final seconds of Saturday's game, I was tempted to honor Grizzard with a similar post. But doing so would be neither original nor genuine of me, just a cop out. So I'll press on.

Losing to South Carolina is a rarity, but it's also a very ugly catharsis for Georgia fans. The game is played early in the season, when the possibilities are still at their most expansive and expectations are at their highest. Twenty-three years ago, my father greeted a South Carolina win over Georgia by sending a loafer through the drywall in our kitchen. It landed right below the wall phone and his "Goddamnit, Georgia!" was met by Mom's rejoinder of "Goddamnit, Len!"

Bulldog historian Dan Magill once said of Georgia Tech words to the effect that, if you don't think Tech is a rival, try losing to them. I think the same can be said of South Carolina or any other foe that you're used to beating. Witness South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier's post-game taunting.

Georgia's record against South Carolina before Saturday night's contest was 44-13-2. That averages to about one Gamecock win every five years. Given that it had been since 2001 since their last win against the Bulldogs, the Chickens were due – overdue by a year, in fact. I take it as an indicator of the series one-sidedness that, following each of the other five Georgia wins, it never occurred to any Georgia coaches to bother taunting South Carolina.

One of the weird things about college football, from the perspective of fandom or gambling, is that a team is rarely as good or as bad as its last game. Last year, Georgia shut out Spurrier for only the second time in his career and then went on to give up game-winning drives to Vanderbilt and Kentucky. In 2004, we shelled the defending national champions, LSU, 45-16 and followed that up with a 19-14 loss to two-time Peach Bowl runner-up Tennessee.

This year, as in 2005, Georgia looked unstoppable against an upstart team widely picked to upset us in our opener. The following week in 2005 and this year, our offense wet the bed against South Carolina.

This time around, South Carolina eeked out a 16-12 win, the result of equal parts stifling defense on SC's part and dropped or poorly thrown passes and questionable play calls by Georgia. Really, the details are not important. Fans can tear themselves up on message boards, call-in shows and sports blogs about whom to blame, but it's best to step away if you feel that's the direction you're being taken.

Losses happen. We spend so much time focusing on champions that we lose sight of the infinitesimally small odds that even an outstanding team has of going undefeated, much less winning a national title. Think about it in terms of probabilities: If you had an 80% chance of winning every game on your schedule (and you couldn't even say that about Georgia's 1980 national championship season), you'd have less than a 7% chance of going undefeated in the regular season: 0.80^12 = 0.068719.

On the subject of fans needing perspective, as Kanu noted, those who booed at Saturday night's game should just stay home from here on out. It's deer season, right? I don't care if they are phoning it in; booing a bunch of 18-22-year-olds is never, ever acceptable. We're already doing a bang-up job scaring off recruits as it is.

Georgia fans love to lecture other rival fans about class. We'll wag our fingers about Florida fans and jean shorts. We'll chide Tennessee fans about their choice of a shade of orange. We'll snort at Auburn fans about their football factory masquerading as a sociology department. Having watched Nebraska fans applaud a rival that just got done beating their team, it occurs to me that we Georgia fans know about as much about class as Paris Hilton does.

So we lost at home to an opponent we perceived to be inferior. So did Auburn. So did Michigan, whom our fans were busy taunting last week (remember the students with "Ha Ha Michigan" painted on their bodies? Yeah, where are those guys right now?).

So let's hug it out, get well against Western Carolina and get ready for what looks to be the beginning stages of a monster being built by Nick Saban in Tuscaloosa.

Labels: ,

Monday, September 03, 2007

Game 1: Troglodytes 35, Greatest Offense in the Universe 14

Our long march through the off-season desert is over and, rather than apologize for not having put together any previews of the college football season, I'll just acknowledge the exemplary work of the Dawg blogs on my blog roll: Doug at Hey Jenny Slater, Kyle and MaconDawg at Dawg Sports, David Ching at the Georgia Bulldog Blog, Sen. Blutarsky at Get the Picture and, of course, Paul Westerdawg at the Georgia Sports Blog. At my best, I might only have been rendered redundant. More likely, I would've been outclassed entirely. Frankly, since I'm not at practice everyday, it would have been impossible for me to write anything other than what had already been written: Youth on OL and DL, the impact of losing Paul Oliver on the secondary, depth at RB and WR, yada, yada, etc., etc.

So, with the season blessedly underway, let's get down to what actually happened and what it means for next week.

Georgia opened the season with one of its strongest non-conference season openers in years. I think you'd have to go back to 1983, when we opened with UCLA, to find us getting off the blocks against comparable competition. Freshly showered with T. Boone Pickens' millions, Oklahoma State is famously making its Big Move into the Big Boys' Club. These things take time, of course, and the early returns can be ugly. The year before its Fiesta Bowl stunner against Oklahoma, Boise State got its ears boxed in Athens, 48-13.

As others have noted, Oklahoma State is no Boise State. As a Big XII member, the Pokes regularly square off with Oklahoma, Texas, Texas A&M, Nebraska and others. They beat Alabama last year. They've played in big, loud stadiums – although they haven't fared particularly well as the road team – and their marketing department trumpeted the Cowboys as having "The Best Offense on Earth" or some such.

Anyway, by now, everyone knows how this thing wound up – 35-14, Georgia, in a game that, despite all of the parallels being drawn to the 2005 Boise State opener, was nothing like it. Yes, both BSU and OSU run spread offenses with mobile QBs who were supposed to run rings around our defense and make our offense look prehistoric by comparison. But Boise State was annihilated by halftime, with QB Jared Zabransky getting benched before halftime after throwing about a half-dozen picks. Whereas Oklahoma State was still very much in the game at halftime, down by what Georgia coach Mark Richt readily admitted was a "cheap" touchdown (Thomas Brown's 14-yarder from 1st and 10 on the OSU 12) that was largely the result of an OSU special teams gaffe.

While many teams would have wilted after such a bad start, particularly with nearly 93,000 bourbon-fueled fans suddenly smelling a rout, Okie State clawed their way back into the game, piecing together a four-minute, 11 play, 70-yard (and that doesn't include a sack and a tackle for loss that totaled 11 yards) drive late in the second quarter to bring the game to 21-14. Georgia went three-and-out and, after OSU stalled on its next drive, we went into halftime, only head by that "cheap" touchdown.

This brings me to the real subtext of this game. Georgia, in 2007, is fielding a relatively young team that is more than a year removed from its last SEC title. We struggled badly with adversity in the middle of the 2006 season. With so many redshirt and true freshmen on the field this year, how would we respond to adversity early?

Troubling as OSU's last drive was, there was a pretty undeniable feeling that Georgia was controlling this thing. Concerned that my warm feeling might've come from the whiskey, I went back and watched the replay yesterday morning and checked the stats. Turns out my initial feeling was right. Georgia out-gained the Pokes in the first half 178 yards to 121, in spite of running five fewer plays. Georgia won the time of possession battle 16:25 to 13:35. It wasn't the gaudy domination of the Boise State tilt, but it was solid evidence of Georgia's upper hand.

The visual evidence was pretty compelling as well. Georgia's defense was swarming. Anyone in white with the ball was usually dealing, in very short order, with four or five red jerseys arriving promptly and with ill intentions. Efforts to spread the field east and west mostly left the Cowboys going sideways. Gang tackling abounded. Marcus Howard, Dannell Ellerbe, Rod Battle, Kelin Johnson, Geno Atkins, Jeff Owens and Brandon Miller seemed to be everywhere the ball was and the front four had a very regular presence in Oklahoma State's backfield. Of course, the second half confirmed the defense's dominance, as the self-proclaimed "Greatest Offense on Earth" mustered zero points in the remaining 30 minutes.

On the other side of the ball, Georgia's supposedly troglodyte offense looked crisp and brutally efficient, amassing 376 yards, no turnovers and a relative minimum of dumb penalties, save for a false start and an illegal formation. Every trip to the red zone (save for the last, when we were running out the clock) netted a touchdown. Aside from two bad passes right before half, when Matt Stafford wasn't planting his feet, the sophomore QB looked outstanding (18/24, 234 yards, two TDs, 0 INTs) – and so did his receivers. It was a genuine pleasure seeing the once drop-prone Sean Bailey return from ACL surgery to haul in five catches for 87 yards, including a spectacular reaching grab on the sideline and a stop-on-a-dime button-hook that he almost took to the house. Newcomers WR Mike Moore and TE Bruce Figgins caught one apiece – each for touchdowns. Mikey Henderson was his usual lethal self, receiving, returning and running for 103 yards.

An interesting stat popped up in Richt's Sunday presser: of Georgia's 234 passing yards, roughly 170 were yards after the catch. That may be a commentary on OSU's tackling, but, that was an important number to see, regardless. For years, I have tired of watching Georgia receivers collapse to the ground after catching a ball, either because Shockley or Greene wasn't placing the ball accurately enough or because, upon catching the ball, the typical Georgia WR thinks his job is done. During those same years, I have watched scores of Florida receivers put on track meets after catching a ball. If you watched Florida under Steve Spurrier in the 1990s, sure, they had accurate quarterbacks, but the real fireworks came after the ball was delivered. Why, I wondered, can't we have guys like that? Well, it appears we finally might.

But the real intrigue, strategically and tactically, lay in the running game. The best way to limit OSU's offense – or any offense, for that matter – is to not let them on the field. Grinding out the clock with screens and rushes for five and 10 yards a pop was the order of the day. But, from a tactical perspective, I think everyone was itching to see the covers come off Knowshon Moreno and whether reports were true of Thomas Brown's return-with-a-vengeance from ACL surgery.

The differences between the offense under the recently promoted Mike Bobo from when Richt called the plays were pretty subtle for the most part. I think Richt was inaccurately tagged a pass-first offensive coordinator, when, in fact, Georgia almost always rushed more than it passed. My criticism had to do with the timing of the running game, and how it would disappear once we crossed an opponent's 20, or any time it appeared to be having success.

Bobo seemed to recognize what happens to passing percentages as the field gets shorter and, accordingly, treated old-school Georgia fans to their version of mother's milk, the simple elegance of a toss sweep for a touchdown, one of two from Thomas Brown.

And while Brown got the touchdowns, Moreno got the yards. Spinning, sprinting, bouncing and battering his way forward, Moreno resembled a healthy Kenny Irons, rushing for 70 yards and receiving for 51. What jumped out at me was both his burst and balance. He was patient with his blocks and, as soon as the holes formed, KnoMo was gonzo. I can't recall him going down on first contact, nor do I remember it taking less than two people to get him on the ground. As long as he's healthy, I expect the kid to treat us to some spectacular runs.

Lastly, regarding the much fretted-over OL: I think they availed themselves well, but, as Richt noted at halftime, we weren't asking them for much. Mostly, we needed enough protection for Stafford to get a screen off or enough daylight for Brown, Moreno or Lumpkin (whom, sadly, we lost for a few games to a broken thumb) to get three yards. Oklahoma State's defense may be somewhat improved from their bottom-tier status in recent years, but it's safe to assume South Carolina and Jasper Brinkley will pose a much greater challenge up front.

So, where does that leave us? Well, notwithstanding Reshad Jones' personal foul, I think we've got a very disciplined team on both sides of the ball and one that happily plays smash-mouth. Given that Okie State brought in a new defensive coordinator, Bobo clearly logs his share of hours in the tape room. Rodney Garner, John Fabris and Willie Martinez have taken a young, talented defense and managed to pound some scheme into these Huns' heads.

I think we can expect more of a slugfest with the "bunch of average stiffs" Steve Spurrier will be bringing from Columbia. The Gamecocks' OL issues mirror ours and I don't expect QB Blake Mitchell to be poised any more than I expect Steve Spurrier to be forgiving when Mitchell makes mistakes under what ought to be pretty regular duress. Stafford will probably experience similar pressure from a reputedly solid South Carolina D, but will probably handle it a bit better than Mitchell, who was suspended in the Chickens' season opener, an uneven 28-14 win against Louisiana-Lafayette (SC was favored by 29). Spurrier is promising some lineup changes (a recurring theme this time of year at South Carolina), but I think we can expect to see many of that offense's mainstays: Mitchell under center, RBs Mike Davis and Cory Boyd and WR Kenny McKinley.

Labels: ,