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Monday, September 22, 2008

Grading the Game: UGA vs. Arizona State

Sorry this is a little later than usual. Still catching up on sleep after the trip West. Anyway, going through these, it's hard to find much not to like from Saturday's games, but keep in mind, Alabama presents a whole new set of problems. Anyway, this week's grades...

PASSING GAME: Matthew Stafford opened the game with three straight incompletions. After that, he was spot on. Stafford was 16-of-28 for a career high 285 yards in the game and threw one touchdown to the legendary A.J. Green. For the season now, Stafford has completed just a shade over 60 percent of his passes, thrown five touchdowns and has yet to throw a pick. Those first two numbers are good, but not great, but Stafford's primary responsibility this season was to keep that third number low, and zero is pretty darn low. Green, of course, is responsible for the biggest chunk of Stafford's success Saturday, hauling in eight passes to become Georgia's first 100-yard receiver since 2006. His 159 yards were the most by a Bulldogs wideout in five years. The real beauty of how well Stafford and Green clicked can't just be seen in the numbers though. Stafford's passes were -- by and large -- on the money, and Green found ways to make the grab even when he wasn't open. These two have played together for just four games, and it's obvious they have only scratched the surface of their potential, which is a scary thought for defenders. Now, you could certainly argue that Green had just one catch for nine yards in the second half, but the counter to that is simple: Georgia had 132 of its 176 rushing yards in the second half. Arizona State was forced to move a safety over the top to slow Green, and that gave the Dawgs' running game lots more room to run. And on a team with Knowshon Moreno at tailback, isn't that exactly what the passing game is supposed to do?


How often will Knowshon run for 149 yards and two TDs and not be the lead story? Perhaps nothing shows how good Stafford and Moreno were more than the fact that they upstaged Moreno, which is no easy task. Through the first half, while Green was lighting up the secondary, Moreno managed just 3.5 yards per carry. Although he did find the end zone twice -- including another example of his leaping prowess on a four-yard dive over the goal line -- there simply wasn't a lot of running room for the Heisman hopeful. He finished with a flurry, however, upping his per-carry average to 9.4 and breaking off three long runs. Most of Moreno's success came on toss sweeps -- although one resulted in a fumble. Overall, the Bulldogs have lost the football five times in two weeks now, but have been lucky enough to recover all five. Luck can turn quickly, however, so the Dawgs would be well served to remedy those problems quickly. One notable omission from the game was freshman Richard Samuel. He played almost exclusively over Caleb King in the first half against South Carolina, but didn't touch the football at all against Arizona State. King didn't look great, but made several nice cuts and worked for some hard yardage as well, picking up 44 yards on 10 carries. Fullback Shaun Chapas dropped a wide-open pass that would have been an easy touchdown and also came up short on two runs inside the 1 -- one of two UGA drives that ended just inches from the goal line. Those short yardage situations have been an ongoing problem for the Dawgs, but one that should get better in three weeks when Brannan Southerland is back. One other important note on the Bulldogs' running backs: With the revamped offensive line in front of them, they did a great job of picking up blocks to give Stafford time to throw. Particularly for Moreno, this can be an overlooked aspect of their game, but it was essential to Georgia's success against the Sun Devils.


Five players at five new positions could have been a recipe for disaster, particularly when going against an All-American defensive end. The results, however, were roundly one-sided, as Dexter Davis never got a whiff of Stafford in the pocket, and Arizona State recorded just one sack in the game, coming on third-and-long when the Sun Devils could simply pin their ears back and go after the QB. As the unit has all season, there was a lot more success in pass protection than in opening up holes for the running game, but the line was able to give Stafford so much time that the passing game's success basically allowed the running game to succeed. Clint Boling and Chris Davis each returned to guard (right and left, respectively) where they finished last year, and Davis said it boosted the pair's confidence significantly. Vince Vance did a really nice job of stopping Dexter Davis in his first start at left tackle. Redshirt freshman Justin Anderson looked good at right tackle, and true freshman Ben Jones played every snap at center and held his own. The lack of a great push up the middle in the run game was somewhat concerning, but that could have been a case of game-planning more than Jones' limited success. More importantly, there's a learning curve for the freshman, and by breaking Moreno out wide on a number of his runs, it allowed Jones to concentrate on pass protection first. His life is about to get far more difficult this week, however, when Alabama's Terrence Cody comes to town.


Now this was the game coaches and fans were hoping for. The D line has done a spectacular job of stopping the run all season, but to hold Arizona State to just four yards was beyond impressive. The Sun Devils were completely one-dimensional -- ASU threw 36 times and ran just 19 -- and the Dawgs were then able to focus on attacking quarterback Rudy Carpenter. Entering the game, UGA defensive ends had just 1.5 sacks on the season, but they added 2.5 more against the Sun Devils, part of a four-sack afternoon for the Dawgs. While the defensive ends played clearly their best game of the season, it was the interior of the line -- Geno Atkins, Corvey Irvin, Brandon Wood and Kade Weston -- who once again stole the show. The Bulldogs have reduced their rushing yards allowed in each game this year, but they'll face their toughest task of the season this week against Alabama.


This has really been the unsung unit of the defense. While everyone seems to have something to say about the lack of a pass rush or the struggles of the secondary, it has been the linebackers -- namely Rennie Curran and Dannell Ellerbe -- who have held the D together through the first four weeks. Just one week after earning SEC defensive player of the week honors, Curran was a force yet again. He recorded his third sack of the season in the first half, had two tackles for a loss and led the team with nine tackles overall. Ellerbe and Darryl Gamble each had three tackles, and Gamble assisted on a sack. While the big boys up front clearly had a lot to do with the low rushing totals the past two weeks, it has really been Curran and Ellerbe that have been the icing on the cake. South Carolina and Arizona State routinely tried to cut runs out wide, but the two linebackers have pursued laterally with precision, particularly Curran who is like a rocket heading toward his target.


Rudy Carpenter was bound to find some success. He's a veteran, and he threw the ball 36 times, so the secondary had its hands full, particularly cornerback Bryan Evans. Arizona State attacked Evans repeatedly, and while there were times the Sun Devils were able to move the ball, they never had any regular success. Evans finished the game with seven tackles and managed to hold his own for most of the contest. Asher Allen had a sure interception but was flagged for holding on the play, one of several ASU drives kept alive because of penalties (questionable or otherwise) rather than mistakes by the DBs. It wasn't a perfect performance, but the unit did enough to win. When your defense makes the opposition completely one-dimensional, as Georgia did Saturday, that's really all you need.


First off, the good: Congrats to Zach Renner, who seems like a great kid and earned some well-deserved attention by blocking an Arizona State punt. Kicker Blair Walsh also converted on two-of-three field goals, his only miss being from 56 yards out. That's about it for the superlatives, though. The return game was a mixed bag, at best, including the second punt return of the season by Knowshon, which went nowhere. A week after being the special teams darling, punter Brian Mimbs didn't look sharp, and the kickoff problems continued once again, although ASU was pinned behind its own 20 on a few occasions, minor victories for a kicking unit that has really struggled this season. And while the legitimacy of the penalties might be questionable, Gamble's personal foul on a punt kept another ASU drive going when Georgia should have had the football back. There were a few nice plays, but overall the special teams remain extremely unreliable for the Bulldogs through four games.


Hard to argue with anything the coaching staff did Saturday. Offensive coordinator Mike Bobo knew ASU's plan was to stop Moreno, so he came out throwing. Stafford went to the air on the first three plays of the game, and while all fell incomplete, it set the tone for the first half. A week after head coach Mark Richt lamented not getting the ball to A.J. Green enough, the freshman was the primary target of Stafford. The aerial attack picked apart the Sun Devils and forced them to change their game plan at half time. Bobo was quick to adjust, and put the task of finishing the game on Moreno's shoulders. The playcalling was fantastic throughout. Defensively, Willie Martinez's game plan of stopping the run and making the opponent one-dimensional worked perfectly yet again. Martinez seems to always be under fire from fans, but this defense has really been a lot better than it has been given credit for through four weeks. In Georgia's two games against BCS-conference opponents, the D has allowed 22 rushing yards total. Now that is impressive. Hats off to Richt and Stacy Searels, too, for taking a risk by switching up the offensive line this week. The unit wasn't perfect, but it was much improved. Finding consistency on the line is usually the top priority, so it was a risky move to switch things up, but Searels obviously saw something in Vance to want to move him out to tackle, and the confidence showed in Jones at center may provide dividends down the road, too. Richt also took a risk having the team follow its normal travel routine, despite the long road trip. It was nearly impossible to prepare the Dawgs for the heat either, particularly given the cool temperatures in Athens all week, but the staff, including trainer Ron Courson, knew exactly what they were doing. The numerous penalties are still a big concern, but it's hard to argue with Richt when he says that a number of those whistles never should have happened.


Bonus category -- THE FANS:
Hats off to Georgia fans. My flight out was filled with them. They were everywhere in Tempe. They annoyed the heck out of ASU fans, who were clearly overwhelmed. They were loud, they were into the game and they showed the Pac-10 folks how it's done. Richt, Stafford and company all said how crucial the immense fan support for the game was, and the numbers of UGA fans in attendance have been anywhere from 12,000 to more than 20,000. Most importantly, there were no outrageous stories of Georgia fans starting fights or causing problems -- just providing lots of noise and boosting Tempe's alcohol sales to a pretty lofty level.


Again, hard to argue with much of what we saw in the desert. This week's test will be far greater, but probably worth reflecting on this win a little longer before you start having nightmares about Terrence Cody. So, anything you thought I screwed up? Anything you would have graded differently? What are your biggest concerns headed into the Alabama game? Leave your comments below.


NYCDawg said...

Agree with the majority of your assessments...I thought Blair Walsh did better placing the directional kicks (one out of bounds excepted), but he didn't get any help...way too many missed tackles. Seems like we're seeing a lot of them on special teams, as well as the secondary (Miller & Evans particularly).
As a related side note, why aren't we going after more punts? The one time we did, it worked. Thought we missed a lot of opportunities to get some blocked punts during the SC game as well.

And I'd give the UGA fans in Tempe an A++...Gordon Biersch Brewery was out of Bud Light by 12:30. They had no idea what hit them.

Anonymous said...

What Bryan Evans were you watching? He had 7 tackles because ASU WRs were catching balls in front of him all game. ASU clearly saw a weakness in Evans. He is by far the least talented DB at UGA. I would rather watch a true freshman have 7 tackles and learn than this joker.

David Hale said...

I'm not saying Evans had a great game -- and yes, he's the weakest link of the secondary at this point -- but ASU has a top-10 quarterback and they only put up 10 points. One of their scoring drives also came off a bogus penalty that kept the drive alive. So, no, Evans didn't play great, but he played well enough to keep the Sun Devils' offense from making a ton of big plays. Just saying calling out Evans is sort of nitpicking -- every team has a weakness, but if Evans is UGA's biggest problem, I'd say that's not such a bad thing.

Oh, and to nycdawg... there's nothing like drinking a place out of beer. West coasters always think they know how to party until they match livers with out-of-towners.

Steve said...

I agree that the goal line struggles are a concern, but a link off Get The Picture made me feel a little better. The play where Knowshon tried to go over the top, and replay said he never got in...ASU had 12 defenders in the game. How about them Pac-10 officials?