Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Preview: Georgia at Arkansas

The Dawgs travel to the western-most SEC locale to battle the Arkansas Razorbacks this Saturday night in what looks to be a shootout. Georgia will be the first true test for Bobby Petrino's Hogs, as they have only played Missouri State and Bye State U thus far. First, though, let's take a look at last week's 41-37 win at home against the South Carolina Gamecocks.

What on paper shaped up to be a defensive battle (or offensive struggle) was anything but, as the two teams combined for the second most points in the series. After scoring just 17 points between them in week 1, the Dawgs and Cocks used several big plays to run the score up in a hurry, blowing the 39-point over/under out of the water in the first half.

The Bulldogs continued their appalling trend of turning the ball over deep in their own territory right off the bat, when WR AJ Green coughed the ball up, giving the Cocks possession at the Georgia 23. SC scored a TD six plays later, but on the ensuing kickoff, Brandon Boykin set a school record by returning it 100 yds to even up the score at 7. Then, after scoring a second TD, SC kicked off to Branden Smith, who you'll recall ill-advisedly returned two kicks out of the end zone against OSU. He took a vicious hit from a 3 mph breeze, and fumbled at the Georgia 8. Fortunately, the Dawgs' D stiffened and held SC to a field goal.

With all this happening inside the first 10 minutes of the game, the stage was set for a wild final 50 minutes. Georgia got some spectacular plays from the usual suspects like AJ Green, and we got to see why the Bulldog coaches were so insistent on getting Branden Smith involved on offense. The true freshman took a reverse on his own 39, found a seam, and blew by Cock defenders like the mob had fitted them with cement loafers. Still, the Dawgs were not content to break the trend of close games with SC. A pick six and a safety later, and the Gamecocks were within striking distance for a game-winning TD. Rennie Curran would have none of it, though, swatting a would-be TD pass away at the last second to seal the victory.

There are a few things to take away from this victory.

First, it's evident that the Bulldogs are reloading and rebuilding at the same time. For all the talent on both sides, there is precious little experience at some key positions. Heck, even AJ Green has started less than a season's worth of games. When you have talent and inexperience, you get a great play followed by an atrocious play, and you have to hope the bad plays don't cost you the game. They did in week 1, and didn't last week.

Second, the defense had its problems. Primarily, the Cocks were able to find tight ends sneaking out over and over. Although I've not been nearly as critical of Willie Martinez as some, we've seen too many times where an opponent will find a few plays that are wildly successful (that's going to happen), and they'll run them until Martinez figures out how to stop them. Often times, he doesn't. Having said that, you have to realize just how terrible are the spots his defense finds itself in. Three turnovers (two deep in UGA territory, another a INT return for a TD), a fake punt by SC, a safety, and a big return by SC off a kickoff all skewed the score with respect to how the defense played. There are some who would say, "well, how do you explain the 427 yds of total offense?" I just did. Georgia's offense had so many shortened possessions (the Boykin KO return, while obviously a good thing, also put the SC offense right back on the field), that SC simply had more opportunities than normal to rack up the yardage. (I'll have a more in-depth feature on Willie Martinez later this week)

Finally, Joe Cox and Richard Samuel are coming along. Yes, the Cox interception was pitiful, and came at a horrible time, but aside from that one pass, he was remarkably efficient. Even with the pick, his passer rating was 160.4, and you'll take that all season. Samuel looked quicker this week, and more importantly, he was running with more balance and power than I've ever seen him.

Offensive PotG: I said AJ Green. Despite a very costly fumble, I'll still give it to him. He made an amazing leaping/diving grab to keep one drive alive showing his athleticism, and a beautiful leaping catch in the back of the end zone displaying his body control and concentration. He finished with 6 receptions for 86 yds and a score.

Defensive PotG: I thought Reshad Jones might get a pick or two. Clearly, Rennie Curran gets the coveted award, finishing with a career-best 15 total tackles, and the aforementioned game-saving pass break-up.

Thought for the Game: Progress was made from week 1 to week 2. For the most part, individual acts of stupidity caused this game to be close, and not a general problem with offensive or defensive production, although QB containment was an issue. It will be interesting to see what this team can do if/when a few players aren't just flat-out screwing up. "Coach 'em up!" yells the peanut gallery armchair Monday morning QB. The two fumbles, the INT, and the safety were not results of a lack of or bad coaching.

So, on to this weekend's contest in Fayetteville, ArKansas.

The Razorbacks have been a somewhat enigmatic program since joining the SEC in 1991. Possibly due to lacking a solid recruiting base, thereby having to rebuild every few years, the Hogs seem to repeatedly have a few good years followed by a few bad years. When Houston Nutt resigned at the end of the 2007 season amidst a recruiting controversy and cries for his termination from a fan base with unreasonable expectations, he did so compiling the second-best record behind the legendary Frank Broyles. He was replaced by a grade-A slimeball.

Bobby Petrino took over the Arkansas program before finishing out his first season as the head coach of the Atlanta Falcons. Some apparent clandestine meetings, lies, and unsavory agreements were all part of his midnight escape. All this after being involved with some undercover talks with Auburn about possibly replacing then coach Tommy Tuberville. Whatever the case, he has always produced prolific offenses, with his Louisville teams consistently being among the tops in the nation.


Offensively for the Hogs, Petrino has typically used the pass to set up the run, and he's got a QB who's more than willing to do his part. Ryan Mallett was named the starter this season after transferring from Michigan prior to the '08 season, and subsequently sitting out a year per NCAA rules. One of the top recruits in the country out of HS, Mallett has perhaps the strongest arm in the SEC, and is also the biggest QB in the SEC at 6'7, 240lbs. The only real "knock" on him thus far would be his experience. He played a fair amount toward the end of his freshman year at Michigan, but because he sat out all of last season, the only recent film on him is of his performance, albeit an impressive one, against Missouri St. last week.

The Razorbacks have always had some gifted running backs, and while this year's top two are not considered to have quite as much NFL potential, they can still get the job done. Michael Smith is a small, shifty back at 5'9, 180lbs. Used primarily as a third down back until last year, he's averaged 5.7 ypc for his career. He's backed up by freshmen and sophomores who'll play as well, and each brings a different style to prepare for.

The receiving corps for the Hogs is led by Joe Adams and Jarius White. Neither is particularly big, but they were both highly recruited and can run. Petrino's offense has always been defined by his willingness to get everybody involved in the passing game, so look for the backs, receivers, and TE DJ Williams to all be utilized. As mentioned, the Razorbacks played the sisters of the poor in week 1, so they were afforded the opportunity to play a lot of reserves. Nonetheless, completing a pass to 13 different players in just one game is impressive, and indicative of what Arkansas likes to do.

The Arkansas O-Line is big, with not a single starter under 305lbs. That being said, they are more adept at pass blocking and zone blocking, versus past Razorback lines that were geared more toward playing power football. From a pure talent perspective, this could be the Achilles Heel for the offense. I say "could," because they looked just fine last week, but against a vastly inferior opponent.

For Georgia defensively, overall pressure on the QB has improved somewhat, but the Dawgs need to do a better job of collapsing the entire pocket. A good rush from the outside is easily negated if the QB is allowed to step up in the pocket, and a good push up the middle doesn't mean much if the QB is allowed to take a few steps to the side. Although Georgia's DE group took a hit when Rod Battle tore his ACL, it does get back DE Justin Houston from a two-game suspension. The redshirt soph. was hell on wheels in the Georgia spring game, and is considered the most talented DE on the team currently. Given SC's success in the short passing game to the TE last week, the Dawgs better be ready to get away from a soft zone early. The name of the game here is alertness. Georgia needs to be aware of all potential receivers at all times (this includes TEs, RBs, and WRs). Beyond that, Mallett is still young with respect to game experience, and he's not been really touched in over two years. A good hit or two could go far in rattling him, and his mobility has not been tested.

On defense, Arkansas is led up front by senior DT Malcolm Sheppard. The All-SEC DT is a nightmare in the middle, with adequate size (6'2, 291) and exceptional strength and quickness. He tallied 6.5 sacks last year from the inside. Beyond him, the line is looking for some playmakers to step up, w/ DE Adrian Davis being the primary candidate for pressure off the edge.

LB Jerry Franklin is solid, and looks to really come into his own this year. Outside of him, seemingly every Arkansas LB has faced off the field issues of some sort. Freddy Burton got himself a DUI last year, and Wendel Davis started some static with a driver who bumped his scooter. They are none of them particularly fast, but Arkansas has always managed to find LBs that overachieve, so we'll see how this year's group looks.

The Arkansas defensive backfield took a major hit when starting CB Isaac Madison tore his ACL prior during fall practice. He was replaced with JuCo transfer Rudell Crim, leaving CB Ramon Broadway as the only known commodity in the secondary. Safeties Tremain Thomas and Matt Harris aren't particularly big or fast, and will have to rely on their moxie and knowledge of the system to be effective.

Overall, Arkansas was absolutely pitiful last season. They finished dead last in the SEC in total defense, scoring defense (by a LOT), and rushing defense, and 10th in passing defense. Sometimes, it can take a while for a new defense to gel, but the Hogs didn't get a whole lot better as the season went along. However, they have had an extra week to watch and plan for Georgia (probably more, since they knew Missouri St. would not present much of a challenge), the stadium will be rocking for the first home game against a ranked SEC opponent this year.

For the Dawgs offensively, it's time to see what they can be when guys aren't literally and figuratively dropping the ball. QB Joe Cox looked far more comfortable in his second start, and receivers were making plays for him. I'm all for inventive play-calling, and definitely want to see more of Branden Smith, but against a defense that got pushed around a good bit last year, Bobo needs to first see if the Dawgs can line up and hit Arkansas in the mouth. Richard Samuel got a dose of confidence last week, and I think he's poised to have a breakout game (as long as McClendon and/or Bobo don't decide to yank him just when he's getting warmed up, like they appeared to last week). The bottom line is this: Arkansas does not present much of a problem, and the Dawgs must not continue to turn the ball over. A 3 turnovers-per-game average is ridiculous, and a repeat of that will be the only thing stopping Georgia's attack this week.

Overall for this game, it's not the known quantities that scare you, but the unknown. QB Ryan Mallett is super-talented but unproven. Bobby Petrino is a respected offensive mind, but has only had his system in place for a year. What makes this game tough is not just the opponent, but the fact the overall environment the Dawgs are playing in, the relatively long trip to Arkansas, and the extra time the Hogs have had to prepare. Georgia has been mistake-prone so far this year, and this is just the type of game that can unravel on them if those mistakes continue. I think our inexperience continues to diminish, and the Dawgs get a comfortable win, 34-24.

Offensive PotG: Richard Samuel finally breaks a long run (Caleb King is still questionable to doubtful), and gets tough yardage behind a quickly improving offensive line.

Defensive PotG: DE Justin Houston announces his return with some consistent pressure, and maybe a sack or two.

Thought for the Game: Georgia has not lost two true road games in a season under Richt. Obviously, they've already lost one this year, so hopefully that trend continues.

So, that's what I've got for you this week. Every game is important in SEC play. While it's always great to beat the top teams in the league, it's these games that often make or break your season. A "swing" game on the road at night against an improving team. Win it, and the Dawgs are 2-0 and building momentum atop the SEC East. Lose, and you pretty much have to win out to control your own destiny.

As always, thanks for reading, and Go Dawgs!

1 comment:

  1. "Georgia has not lost two true road games in a season under Richt."

    You had to say it, didn't you? If we lose this game.... (muttering, walking away)