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Up in the Air

Sept. 29, 2008
Sept. 29, 2008

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Sept. 29, 2008

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Up in the Air

Preseason No. 1 Georgia has been good but not great during a 4--0 start, and even after a 17-point win at Arizona State, questions remain about the Bulldogs as they enter a brutal stretch in the SEC

THE GEORGIABULLDOGS don't venture out West too often, what with the football in theirparts being pretty darn good and all, so it seems a shame that on their trip toArizona last weekend (their first regular-season excursion to the West since1960), they saw little of the Valley of the Sun. They flew into Phoenix lastFriday even though it gave them only 24 hours to acclimate themselves to thedesert heat, kept their watches on Eastern time and devoted not a moment toSonoran sunsets or cactus formations. "They saw the plane, the bus, thehotel, the stadium and the bus again," coach Mark Richt said of hisplayers. "We were only here for one thing."

This is an article from the Sept. 29, 2008 issue

Such tunnelvision has served Georgia well through the early portion of its schedule, asthe Dawgs, ranked No. 1 in the preseason, have tumbled to No. 3 in the pollsdespite maintaining a perfect record. They improved to 4--0 with a 27--10victory over Arizona State on Saturday night, in a solid but not-quite-dominantperformance that they knew wouldn't send any voters rushing to return them tothe top spot. If there is frustration over winning games and losing ground, theBulldogs have been well-conditioned not to acknowledge it. "We've prettymuch learned not to concern ourselves with polls and rankings," juniorquarterback Matthew Stafford says. "Those kinds of judgments are for otherpeople to make."

Here then is ajudgment: The Bulldogs, to paraphrase former Arizona Cardinals coach DennisGreen, are not who we thought they were—at least, not yet. As illogical as itseems for a No. 1 team to lose its perch without losing a game, Georgia hasn'tplayed like the best team in the country, the victory over the Sun Devilsincluded. The Bulldogs did show off plenty of their assets against ArizonaState, including a brick wall of a run defense that held the Sun Devils to fouryards rushing, a spectacular freshman wide receiver (A.J. Green) and atackle-hurdling running back (Knowshon Moreno) who seems to be the battery thatenergizes the entire team.

The problem isthat the Dawgs also have offensive linemen who are so young that you want toread them a bedtime story—two true freshmen and a redshirt freshman playedextensively on Saturday—which means that the strong-armed Stafford doesn'talways have the time he needs to throw downfield. And, at least against ArizonaState, the Dawgs showed a tendency to get careless. They had three fumbles butrecovered them all, and they committed 12 penalties for 104 yards. (For theseason Georgia is tied for last in Division I-A in penalties, with 10.75 agame.)

It might seemlike nitpicking, but with the teams ahead of them in the polls, USC andOklahoma, demolishing all comers, and with Florida looking formidable at No. 4,having whipped Tennessee 30--6 on Saturday in Knoxville, the Dawgs are going tohave to tighten up their game to keep pace. Georgia heads into the meat of theSEC schedule this Saturday against No. 8 Alabama, which crushed Arkansas 49--14over the weekend.

The Bulldogsdidn't get as challenging an opponent as they bargained for in Arizona State,which fell out of the rankings a week earlier with a loss to UNLV, a teamcoming off four consecutive two-win seasons. The Bulldogs' trips to LSU andAuburn along with the annual neutral-site game in Jacksonville against Floridaare likely to make the Arizona State junket look like a vacation, which, formany Georgia fans, it was. An estimated 15,000 of them made the trip toTempe.

AS A reward fortheir loyalty, those pilgrims witnessed the first of what promises to be acareer full of brilliant performances by Green, the highly regarded freshmanwideout out of Summerville, S.C. He caught seven passes for 150 yards in thefirst half, several of them jaw-droppers, including a tough, twisting grab fora 31-yard gain and a leaping catch for a 14-yard touchdown as the Bulldogsbuilt a 21--3 halftime lead. "He changed the game for us," Richt said.Green also brings a new dimension to Georgia's offense, giving the Dawgs a deepthreat to complement the ground game led by Moreno, their Heisman Trophycandidate.

Green's emergencewas surely part of the reason that the Dawgs seem so certain that betterall-around performances lay ahead. They were untroubled by their shaky showingin a 14--7 win at South Carolina on Sept. 13, in which they needed aninterception from free safety Reshad Jones on the Georgia three-yard line with13 seconds left to preserve the victory. When asked what grade he would givehis team's performance in that game, Richt responded, "W." Said widereceiver Mohamed Massaquoi, "A win is a win. You can't worry about stylepoints in the SEC." True enough, but the Dawgs do have reason to beconcerned about another kind of points—the declining total that until Sundaythey had amassed each week in the Associated Press poll.

The offenselooked solid enough in two opening wins, 45--21 over Georgia Southern and56--17 over Central Michigan, but against a Gamecocks defense morerepresentative of the quality they will face for the rest of the season, theBulldogs raised some red flags with their play. The offensive line allowedStafford to be sacked four times and pressured far more often than that. Itwasn't exactly a bulldozer in the ground game either, as Moreno found onlyenough room for 79 rushing yards.

That caused Richtand his staff to spend much of last week reshuffling the line. Sophomore lefttackle Trinton Sturdivant, the line's linchpin, suffered a season-ending injuryto his left knee in the first preseason scrimmage, and his replacement,sophomore Kiante Tripp, was out last week with an ankle injury. As a result,all five starters against the Sun Devils played a different position than theone at which they began the season. They were effective enough to open up someslivers of space for Moreno, who slashed for 149 yards on 23 carries. He alsohad two rushing touchdowns, one of which could more accurately be called aflying touchdown—on a nine-yard run he took off from the four and sailed intothe end zone as if diving into a pool. "That's Knowshon," saidlinebacker Rennie Curran. "When the defense is on the sideline we keep aneye on the field, because you never know when he's going to do something you'venever seen."

Moreno, whose1,334 yards last year were the most by a Georgia freshman since Herschel Walkerran for 1,616 in 1980, already has some of the attention-getting accessoriesthat help a Heisman campaign, including a signature highlight—he hurdledCentral Michigan safety Vince Agnew, a feat that has gotten more than 275,000YouTube hits—and a backstory that enhances his legend. As an eighth-grader atBayshore Middle School in Belford, N.J., Moreno famously challenged his entirephysical education class of about 25 students to try to tackle him. About aminute later he was still dodging and weaving.

If they had everbrought him down, Moreno probably would have sprung right back up to his feet.He's like an inflatable toy that pops back up as soon as it's knocked down. Itmight seem like an attempt to send a message to defenses that they can't hurthim or keep him down for long, but Moreno insists it isn't that calculated."It's just instinct," he says. "I've been doing it ever since I waslittle."

THE BULLDOGS andtheir fans wouldn't have him any other way. They're just grateful for theserendipity that brought a New Jersey kid down South. When he was a sophomoreat Middletown South High, Moreno met Kade Weston, a defensive tackle fromnearby Red Bank Regional High, in an SAT prep class. Weston, a year ahead ofMoreno in school, planned to go to college in the area, possibly at Rutgers,until a tutor suggested he consider Georgia, her daughter's alma mater. Westonattended Georgia's high school camp in the summer before his junior year, andhe ended up committing to the Bulldogs.

During hisfreshman year at Georgia, Weston told Moreno, who was being recruited byMaryland and Virginia Tech, among others, that he should take a look at theDawgs. Moreno was interested enough to take a 15-hour train ride from NewJersey to Athens to attend the camp. "I really think when Knowshon gothere, he was surprised to find it wasn't one of those camps where coaches fromall the schools come to watch," Richt says. "To tell you the truth, Ithink he was a little bit bummed."

Richt didn't evenknow who Moreno was when he showed up, which is hard to believe now that Morenois the best-known Bulldog in town. Store owners have a hard time keepingreplicas of his number 24 jersey on the shelves, and he caused quite a stir inAthens when he wore a number 26 jersey in the spring game in April. The newswas quickly circulated that he was wearing it only for the day in honor ofinjured teammate Tony Wilson, keeping Dawg fans from swarming the sportinggoods stores. "When you've done the things that Knowshon has done, it'shard to hide," Weston says. "People watch everything you do."

The same goes forteams that are the popular preseason pick to win the national title. Everythingthe Bulldogs do is being watched, analyzed, judged. Despite their outward calm,you get the feeling that the Dawgs are wondering what exactly everyone expectsfrom them. The answer is simple. It's the same thing that's expected of anyteam talented enough to be a champion—more. With the grueling SEC schedule thatawaits, we will find out soon enough whether Georgia has more to give.

Trips to LSU and Auburn and the game against Floridaare likely to make the junket to Tempe look LIKE A VACATION.

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PHOTOPhotograph by Rick Scuteri/ReutersHIGHLIGHT Moreno, a Heisman candidate with a flair for the dramatic, soared over the Sun Devils' defenders on his first TD run.PHOTOPETER READ MILLER (GREEN)THREE STARS Green (8) had a TD catch among his eight receptions, Stafford (7) showcased his strong arm, and Curran (35) led a D that allowed just four yards rushing.PHOTOPETER READ MILLER (CURRAN)[See caption above]PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGH (STAFFORD)[See caption above]