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Monday, October 27, 2008

Grading the Game: UGA vs. LSU

The Bulldogs didn't want to call it the complete performance they had been striving for, but it's hard to argue with a 52-38 win over a top-20 team in one of the country's most hostile environments. Georgia had an excellent game plan going into LSU and Mark Richt once again showed why there's no coach you'd rather have on the sideline in an opponent's stadium. But let's break things down a bit further with this week's grade. As you might imagine, the offense scored highly.

PASSING: I said Thursday that if Georgia was going to win out, Stafford had to move from being a good player to being a great player. Against LSU, Stafford was great. Stafford leads the SEC in passing this season and has certainly had his fair share of impressive performances. Unlike the past two weeks when he threw some costly interceptions (which, to be fair, weren't entirely his fault) Stafford avoiding making any mistakes while putting up extremely impressive numbers.

He finished the game 17-of-26 for 249 yards and two touchdowns -- not his biggest numbers of the season, but the final stats were hardly the most impressive part of his day. Two of my biggest criticisms of Stafford have been his reluctance to spread the ball around the past couple weeks and (going back to his freshman year) his occasional decisions to force a ball to a receiver when defenses start to frustrate him.

Against LSU, Stafford was brilliant on both fronts. He connected with nine different receivers in the game -- the most since Sept. 13 against South Carolina -- including the first reception by a tight end in more than a month. More over, Stafford's favorite target -- A.J. Green -- was simply not open throughout most of the first half and the few opportunities the pair had at connecting narrowly missed. Yet Stafford stayed patient and finally hit the big play on a 49-yard TD pass to Green in the third quarter. Green ended up with 89 yards -- all in the second half -- and Stafford didn't throw a pick.

Kudos to Aron White who made his first career reception after it looked like he wouldn't even make the trip to Baton Rouge, Kenneth Harris, who made a nice grab for a touchdown early, and particularly to Michael Moore, who had three catches in the game and had a fourth called back after a penalty. As Georgia's top slot receiver the past few weeks, Moore had struggled -- making just one catch -- but he returned to the form he showed early in the season against LSU. Durham, by the way, returned to action after missing two games with an ankle injury.


Heading into the Vanderbilt game a few silly media folks (yes, I mean me) foolishly pointed out that Knowshon Moreno was averaging less than four yards a carry in SEC play. In the two games since then, Moreno has racked up 335 yards on 44 carries -- a 7.6 ypc average. Knowshon is just 75 yards shy of 1,000 on the ground this season and, should Georgia make it to the SEC championship game, would be on pace to set the all-time SEC record of 1,891 yards in a season set by -- who else? -- Herschel Walker in 1981 (granted, he'll have two more games to do it in than Herschel, so perhaps an asterisk is in order).

Enough about the season numbers though. Against LSU, Moreno was exceptional. He kept the defense honest throughout and for the first time this season found continued success even between the tackles -- an encouraging sign moving forward. His cell phone pose after a 68-yard TD run was the icing on the cake. Colt McCoy's stellar season may keep Knowshon off the Heisman stage this year, but there's no doubt that right now there isn't a better running back in the country.

Props to Fred Munzenmaier also on his second career touchdown on his second career carry. Of course, it's starting to get a little embarrassing for poor Shaun Chapas. Can we please get this guy a touchdown already?


It started last Sunday when Mark Richt commented that LSU's youngest defensive lineman was as experienced as Georgia's oldest offensive linemen. Then came the comparisons to the Alabama game -- that this one would be won or lost in the trenches. It seemed fair to wonder if the Bulldogs offensive line could stand up to LSU's burly defensive tackles or the frenetic four-DE pass rush. Apparently all that talk got the Bulldogs big boys angry.

"We've been hearing it all year, but especially this week with how many seniors they have up front," left tackle Clint Boling said. "I think they felt they were going to come in and beat us up front, but we did a good job of blocking them."

Boling said the line is finally starting to come together after switching positions and starters almost weekly throughout preseason and the first month of the regular season. It showed against LSU.

The line allowed its first sack since the Alabama game, but even that was clearly a coverage sack, and it was still just the ninth of the season. Georgia clearly has some fantastic skill position players, but to be No. 1 in the SEC in total offense, No. 1 in passing offense, No. 4 in rushing offense (at nearly 180 yards per game) and to have allowed just nine sacks all game is remarkable behind an O line that has no one with more than 20 games of experience. These guys aren't perfect, but what they have done so far is nothing short of spectacular. Now, if only I was allowed to interview any of them, it might actually be a good story.


This was sort of a mixed bag. On one hand, the defensive ends clearly had their best day rushing the passer in SEC play this season. Jarius Wynn, Jeremy Lomax and Justin Houston each were in on sacks -- the first of the year for any UGA DE in an SEC game. Houston had a great performance and was in LSU's backfield significantly more than Andrew Hatch. It was a big step forward for the kid who has really been waiting for a break-out game. Having Rod Battle back is clearly starting to pay dividends for the pass rush.

On the other hand, LSU was able to run the ball well throughout the game. Georgia allowed 188 yards on the ground -- a season high and nearly triple what they had been giving up on average this season. Charles Scott had 144 yards rushing himself and scored twice on the ground. Other than the Alabama game, Georgia had allowed only one rushing TD all season.

Kade Weston returned to action at DT after sitting out against Vanderbilt to rest his injured knee, but the Bulldogs were without Brandon Wood, who will also miss this week's game after being arrested and charged with DUI. Wood had been playing regularly, and his absence may have contributed to LSU's success on the ground, but it was hardly an overwhelming factor. What really contributed to the problem was some poor tackling, which allowed LSU to pick up important yards after the initial contact -- something Georgia must fix against a Florida team chock full of game-breaking speed.


Not sure what else to say about Darryl Gamble's big day. The third-year sophomore, making just his third career start at Mike LB, returned two picks for TDs and chipped in with 13 tackles while getting tons of pressure on LSU's QBs when he came on the blitz. It was a performance so impressive that it's a real question about what will happen when Dannell Ellerbe returns from a knee injury.

Rennie Curran had another solid game, once again leading the team in tackles with 14. The number is impressive -- as are Gamble's -- but too many of those tackles came six to 10 yards down the field. Georgia's linebackers have done an excellent job of pursuing laterally this year, but LSU made some big gains simply pounding the ball up the middle.

GRADE: A- (Can't go any lower than that given what Gamble accomplished.)

SECONDARY: Georgia's DBs actually played pretty well through most of the game, but too many big plays made the difference between an impressive performance and one they had to explain away to reporters afterward.

Jarett Lee and Andrew Hatch combined to complete just 16-of-20 passes and Reshad Jones did net his third INT of the year, but LSU burned the Bulldogs to the tune of 309 yards through the air -- easily the most by any opponent this year and the most since the Dawgs allowed Troy to run up 373 yards on 52 attempts Nearly a full year ago.

Again, poor tackling killed Georgia, and LSU had too many big plays in the passing game, led by the 66-yard TD pass to Keiland Williams. Another performance like that and Florida will post an even higher number on the scoreboard than LSU's 38 Saturday.


We'll switch it up this time -- bad news first. Blair Walsh missed a field goal for the second straight week. His kickoffs were far from spectacular either. LSU's average starting field position after a kickoff was the 37. And then there was the fake punt, which the Tigers worked to perfection against a special teams unit that never saw it coming. LSU turned the play into points, which may have been costly had it not been for Gamble's second INT putting an end to the Tigers' comeback attempt.

Now the good news: Walsh also connected on a 50-yarder, punter Brian Mimbs averaged 50.4 yards per punt, including a 60 yard boot, and the special teams kept all-world return man Trindon Holliday out of the end zone. Holliday did rack up 164 kick return yards, but his longest was just 26 yards and LSU only started one drive inside Georgia territory -- its final drive of the game after the Bulldogs turned the ball over on downs while running out the clock.


I've spent a lot of time criticizing Mike Bobo's play calling the past few weeks and I think I was justified. Having said that, he did a great job Saturday, highlighted by running the reverse to A.J. Green for a 22-yard gain when Stafford couldn't get the ball to the freshman through the air in the first half. Heck, even the QB draw in the red zone worked against LSU. Hard to argue with the results, and 52 points in Death Valley is downright impressive. He gets a pass on anything questionable this week.

Willie Martinez also did a nice job of bringing the blitz a bit more often and making sure LSU's QBs never got comfortable, but the defense definitely took its foot off the gas after the Dawgs went up by 21 in the third quarter. Still, Gamble attributed Georgia's success overall to tremendous preparation.

"I guess the preparation, knowing when they were going to run and pass," Gamble said. "With a lot bigger line that LSU has, they kind of showed a little bit of what they were going to do, and we had a key of whether they were going to pass it or not. We pretty much knew what they were going to do before they ran or passed the ball."

Gamble even said he knew his first interception was coming before Lee even threw the football thanks to great study in the film room last week.

"I knew that's where he was going to throw it, so I just waited until he committed and I went and got it," he said.

While the offense and defense were well prepared, the success of the fake punt was something Georgia definitely wasn't ready for. A few points get deducted for that.


Let me just say that my wallet, head and liver are all glad Georgia doesn't play LSU every year.


OK, feel free to tear my grades to shreds. Just remember, I spent two days on Bourbon Street and 10 hours in a car yesterday, so don't be too mean. I'm still recovering.

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