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The first game of a pivotal season for Dawgs coach Mark Richt went off about as well as could be hoped: All things considered, that was the happiest I've seen Georgia fans leaving Sanford Stadium in quite a while. OK, yeah, the opponent was just a middling Sun Belt team, but we'll draw some nuggets out of it when and where we can. Here's what we learned from opening day:
1. That Aaron Murray's going to be just fine. Eventually. Georgia's redshirt-freshman QB, who threw his very first meaningful pass in a Georgia uniform on Saturday, acquitted himself quite nicely: 17-of-26 passing for 160 yards, three TDs, and a solitary pick. I counted only one pass all afternoon about which I was muttering "Boy, you really shouldn't have thrown that" -- the late-first-half heave to the back of the end zone that would've been an interception had the Louisiana DB not dropped it; ironically, Murray's pick was a perfectly thrown pass that Kris Durham bobbled into the hands of ULL's Lance Kelley. Murray was helped out considerably by having plenty of time to throw, but he made plenty of lovely throws on the run, thanks in part to a lightning-quick release that enabled him to set and throw in the blink of an eye on more than a couple of occasions.
Turns out the kid's got some wheels, too -- he never got sacked, and wound up as the team's third leading rusher with 42 yards on just four carries, including a thrilling 16-yard touchdown scramble on the last play of the first half. That run might've been a wee bit too thrilling for Mark Richt's tastes: "I thought a couple of times when he was out of the pocket he could have thrown the ball out of bounds," Richt said after the game. "He would turn up and try to dodge people, and he's going to get splattered if he does that." Yeah, Murray could probably stand to keep his fearlessness in check a little given the lack of depth on our roster at the QB position, but for right now, at least, nobody's going to give the kid too much of a hard time for wanting to be a playmaker.
(And while we're lauding Murray for his excellent day, let's not leave out his backup, true freshman Hutson Mason, who began his Georgia career in the manner every Dawg dreams of -- a 26-yard touchdown pass to Logan Gray on his very first throw in a Georgia uniform. He's just the seventh QB in the history of Division I-A to hit paydirt on his very first pass attempt.)
2. That Todd Grantham don't suffer no fools. In its very first game, Georgia's 3-4 defensive front also did a hell of a job: They held the Ragin' Cajuns to single digits on the scoreboard and to only 128 yards of offense, including a mere 14 yards rushing. And half of ULL's total yardage came on a single play, the 60-yard touchdown pass that constituted their only score of the afternoon. Yet to see the way defensive coordinator Todd Grantham bawled out the secondary after that play -- which immediately followed a Georgia turnover and was supposedly the product of miscommunication as the defense frantically raced to get set -- you'd have thought it was the go-ahead touchdown that broke a 38-38 tie. Sure, as far as the fans in the stands are concerned, Grantham's rant was more symbolic than anything else, but it showed that even when the defense is performing at max efficiency, blatant gaffes like the busted coverage won't be swept under the rug. It was an invigorating sign that the days of passive, read-and-react defense in Athens appear to be over.
3. That the offensive line still has some kinks to work out. Though touted as the most critical strength on a loaded offensive roster for the Dawgs, the offensive line was beset by injuries during summer practice, and it showed at times on Saturday. Georgia totaled 184 rushing yards at the rate of five yards per carry, but breakout plays were few and far between -- Aaron Murray's 21-yard bootleg early in the second half was Georgia's longest rush of the day -- and from my vantage point almost square in the middle of the east end-zone seats, it didn't look like any massive holes were being opened up for the running backs. Of course, the game plan was pretty vanilla, so neither Caleb King nor Carlton Thomas were given the opportunity to try a lot of outside runs, nor did we get to see what Washaun Ealey was capable of. We won't have long to find out, though, as this weekend's trip to South Carolina looms large.
Overall impressions: Like most of you, I've become accustomed to seeing Georgia loaf around against these early-season scrub opponents for large chunks of the game, and that applies even when we're fielding a loaded team with a minimum of glaring question marks. So it was invigorating to see this team -- with a brand-new QB, completely overhauled defense, and several important starters on the sideline -- grab the Ragin' Cajuns by the throat early and not let go for 60 minutes. The double-nickel on the scoreboard was Georgia's highest scoring output since dropping 56 on Central Michigan almost exactly two years ago, and the 48-point margin of victory is the largest the Dawgs have managed at any point in the Mark Richt era. It wasn't a perfect performance, but it sure didn't look sloppy.
Now: How much of this carries over to the South Carolina game this week? Hard to say, but "not much" seems like a reasonable answer; the Gamecocks looked terrific routing what was supposedly a respectable Southern Miss team Thursday night, and if they've indeed finally found an offensive formula that works, we won't be gushing quite so effusively over our 3-4 defensive front come next Sunday morning. But for one lovely Saturday afternoon, it was good to see the Dawgs get their swagger back on both sides of the ball. No, we're not going to win every game this season, but it looks like we've got a good shot at winning most of 'em.
Player of the game: As good as Murray looked, the bigger question mark heading into this game was arguably the defense as a whole, who acquitted themselves about as well as anyone in red and black could've hoped. Special props go to linebacker Akeem Dent, who tied for the Georgia lead with six total tackles and destroyed ULL's Chris Masson with a nine-yard sack early in the second quarter, and fellow LB Christian Robinson, who didn't put together an eye-popping stat line but played a nearly flawless game in terms of lining up correctly and neutralizing his assigned opponent. Overall, it was a more disciplined performance from the entire defense than we've seen in a long, long time.
Stats of the game: +2 and 5 -- Georgia's turnover margin and number of penalties, respectively, against the Ragin' Cajuns. Both of those numbers have royally handcuffed the Dawgs over the past couple seasons, so it was good to see signs of progress in both areas, particularly the former. As I've mentioned before, Georgia managed to win eight games last year despite a turnover margin that, by UGA standards, qualified as historically bad; any improvement in that area, to say nothing of a positive overall margin for 2010, could equal a special season indeed.
This afternoon, Coach Richt carded his 91st career triumph with the Red and Black. Mark Richt is now 110 wins shy of tying Vince Dooley for the all-time school record for victories.
Mark Richt has more wins (91), fewer losses (27), and a better winning percentage (.771) than any other head football coach in Georgia history after 118 games. Wally Butts (83-32-3, .716) and Vince Dooley (78-35-5, .682) both trailed Coach Richt at the same point in their respective careers.
At the time of their respective retirements, both Coach Butts and Coach Dooley were the winningest head coach in Bulldog history to that point. Coach Butts and Coach Dooley each spent more than two decades on the Sanford Stadium sideline before stepping down to become full-time athletic directors in Athens. Both men managed to survive downcycles in their careers during which they were thought by some to be on the hot seat.
According to the AJC, Georgia wideout A.J. Green will be held out of today’s game. I’m on a mobile, so can’t really write a whole lot more, but that’s the story. Disappointing delay by the NCAA.
Will Georgia receiver A.J. Green play Saturday? Especially since other subjects of NCAA investigations like North Carolina’s Marvin Austin and South Carolina’s Weslye Saunders are being held out of their opening day games?
Green’s case is clearly different from those of Austin and Saunders, as nobody appears to think Green is guilty of anything. Green denied ever taking his talents to South Beach, before or during what you hope was the best party ever, and nobody ever publicly doubted him.
It would be a shame for Green to miss his team’s opening game because the NCAA is dragging its feet. If Green isn’t cleared by Saturday, Richt might be unwise to play him. If the ruling body, in its infinite capricious fancy, ever decided Green was actually guilty of something this past summer, Georgia could wind up docked a win. Playing it safe is the only option here, which is sad for Green and his fans.
Since 2003, the Dawgs’ season openers have alternated between BCS-conference teams and mid-majors/I-AA bodybag teams. And this being an even-numbered year, it’s time to bring on the patsy. Louisiana-Lafayette isn’t terrible; they’ve actually finished at .500 or better in four of the last five seasons. But if all goes even remotely according to plan, this won’t be anything more than a nice warm-up opportunity for Georgia’s redesigned defense — and a chance to kick off a pivotal season with an easy win.
LOUISIANA-LAFAYETTE IN 2009
The Ragin’ Cajuns got destroyed by a combined score of 86-3 against LSU and Nebraska, but stunned Kansas State to start the season 4-2; struggled down the stretch but beat Arkansas State and UL-Monroe to finish the season 4-4 in Sun Belt play, 6-6 overall. Did not get a bowl invite.
Offense: 224.8 yards per game passing (49th in D-IA), 136.9 rushing (71st), 361.7 total (76th).
Defense: Allowed 222.4 yards per game passing (70th), 181.9 rushing (99th), 404.3 total (92d).
REASONS TO BE EXCITED
Statistically, the Ragin’ Cajuns were mostly just mediocre last season as opposed to godawful, but those defensive numbers aren’t pretty no matter how you spin them. And they weren’t just the fault of the LSU and Nebraska blowouts, either: ULL got caught in a shootout with a bad North Texas team, gave up 48 points to Troy, and got a 51-spot hung on them by Florida Atlantic (who would finish the season 5-7) at home. The Cajuns’ D-line does return three of four starters, but without star DE Hall Davis, any improvement relative to last year’s horrendous numbers against the rush may be incremental at best. Basically, it’s a good time to be Caleb King: Between ULL’s porous defensive front and the suspension of backfield partner Washaun Ealey for the opener, King has a decent opportunity to go over two bills on Saturday. Backup Carlton Thomas will be given plenty of chances to shine as well.
On the other side of the ball, things set up almost as well for a Georgia D-line that will be showing off its new 3-4 front for the first time before a live Sanford Stadium audience. Last year’s Cajun running game managed only 3.6 yards per carry; this year the offensive line has lost a pair of back-to-back All-Sun Belt first-teamers, and may start two sophomores in the opener. The Bulldogs’ defensive front still faces some personnel questions heading into opening weekend, but Todd Grantham and Rodney Garner will have plenty of opportunity to rotate bodies around and find a combination that works.
REASONS TO WORRY
UL-Lafayette obviously isn’t the stoutest challenge Aaron Murray could be facing in his very first appearance as a Georgia Bulldog, but they won’t be pushovers, either, at least in the defensive backfield. The Ragin’ Cajuns picked off 16 passes last season, and their secondary has six guys in the two-deep who started at least one game last year, including another All-SBC first-teamer, cornerback Dwight Bentley. Which is not to say A.J. Green necessarily has a lot to worry about, but with presumptive starting split end Tavarres Green suspended for the opener, there might be just enough unsteadiness in the receiving corps for the Cajuns to pull off a big play or two.
Then there’s the simple fact that this is an early-season game against a supposed gimme opponent, circumstances under which the Dawgs haven’t often played their best football over the past decade or so — they’re just 4-4 against the spread in early-season games against non-BCS opponents, not counting a string of sloppy performances against I-AA squads. There will be plenty of opportunities for the Dawgs to look rusty on Saturday, the new defensive scheme being only one of them; the most important thing to watch for will be whether they tackle well and nail the fundamentals that deteriorated markedly over the latter half of Willie Martinez’s tenure in Athens.
PLAYER TO WATCH
NT DeAngelo Tyson (and/or Justin Anderson). Whatever else you think about Georgia’s new defense, there’s not much disagreement over one thing: Without stability and consistency on the line, particularly at nose tackle, the transition to a 3-4 is going to be a struggle. At the start of summer practice, Tyson was in the lead to start at nose, but once he started showing impressive proficiency at end, he was swapped out for converted O-lineman Anderson; then, when the final depth chart of the offseason was released last week, Tyson was back in the starter’s spot — but the coaches seemed pretty clear that that wasn’t set in stone, either. For the sake of Todd Grantham’s and Rodney Garner’s respective blood pressures, it’d be awfully nice if a regular starter could emerge from the ULL game.
WHAT’S GOING TO HAPPEN
Dawg fans all know what they’d like to see happen on Saturday: Aaron Murray launches a couple of 60-yard touchdown bombs early and the defense holds onto a shutout as Caleb King and Carlton Thomas power the team to the finish line. Obviously, the perfect scenario isn’t going to happen; in the past, it’s been hard enough even for seemingly invincible Dawg teams to get completely dialed in for these early-season tune-ups.
But as early-season tune-ups go, Louisiana-Lafayette is a pretty good matchup for a regrouping Dawg team. On defense, the Dawgs will face a fairly one-dimensional attack — ULL’s leading rusher last year had only 446 yards, and he graduated — meaning Todd Grantham’s new front will have plenty of time to key in on Chris Masson, the Cajuns’ reasonably mobile QB, and come up with the winning formula for a strong pass rush. While all this is going on, keep your eye on the defensive backfield to see whether Scott Lakatos’ new attitude and aggressiveness in the secondary pays off in improved pass coverage; the better the pass defense can blanket ULL’s experienced but undersized receivers, the more time Masson will have to spend scrambling away from guys like Justin Houston and Akeem Dent.
That leaves the offense, where the big question, obviously, is Aaron Murray. Don’t expect to see any fireworks, or even attempted fireworks, from Murray in this game; Mark Richt has already made very clear that they’re bringing Murray along gradually, and besides, he’s not about to tip his hand to Steve Spurrier in advance of next week’s SEC opener. Basically, this will be a classic case of running to set up the pass, giving Murray a modest workload in his first appearance and grinding out enough clock to keep the defense reasonably fresh. Murray may get a home-run shot or two to A.J. Green before halftime, but otherwise it’ll be a steady diet of high-percentage passes that take advantage of the Dawgs’ ridiculous wealth of tight end talent and give the non-A.J.-Green elements of our WR corps a chance to shine.
So don’t go expecting any wild scoring outbursts that lead to an outrageous halftime score of 45-0 or something like that; this will be a deliberately called and executed game from start to finish. Do expect to see a 150-yard day from Caleb King and a performance from Carlton Thomas, filling in for the suspended Washaun Ealey, that pushes right up against the century mark. Also expect to see promising returns from the front seven and, yes, plenty of face time with freshman QB Hutson Mason in the second half. Georgia’s lead will be constructed very gradually, but when the smoke clears, there’s a pretty good chance that it’ll exceed the four-TD spread set by the oddsmakers — for entertainment purposes only, of course.
IF YOU’RE NOT GOING: The game will be televised via ESPN’s “SEC Network” arrangement — you can watch it on WPCH (Peachtree TV) in the Atlanta area or on the Fox affiliates in Columbus, Macon, and Savannah. On satellite radio, it’ll be on channel 200 on XM, 219 Sirius.
The last ticket to Georgia’s opener was sold “around midnight Monday.” Sanford Stadium’s sellout streak now stands at 58 games, one of the nation’s longer streaks. Nebraska holds the lead, celebrating their 300th last year. Florida has the longest streak in the region with an alleged 130.
With all tickets sold for the team’s other home games this year, the streak will reach 64 games on November 27. Assuming tiny and remote Idaho State doesn’t have to return tickets from its allotment that end up going unsold, of course.
Blutarsky analyzes the defensive line:
Wood has moved ahead of Jones, Tyson is back at #1 at tackle… and, hello, Kiante Tripp.
I don’t know if this is how Garner is keeping his players on their toes, or himself, but I suspect this isn’t the last change on the depth chart we’ll see.
Also, Sanford Stadium is nearing its 58th consecutive sellout.
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