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.

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