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THE GEORGIA BULLDOGS don't venture out West too often, what with the football in their parts being pretty darn good and all, so it seems a shame that on their trip to Arizona last weekend (their first regular-season excursion to the West since 1960), they saw little of the Valley of the Sun. They flew into Phoenix last Friday even though it gave them only 24 hours to acclimate themselves to the desert heat, kept their watches on Eastern time and devoted not a moment to Sonoran sunsets or cactus formations. "They saw the plane, the bus, the hotel, the stadium and the bus again," coach Mark Richt said of his players. "We were only here for one thing."
Such tunnel vision has served Georgia well through the early portion of its schedule, as the Dawgs, ranked No. 1 in the preseason, have tumbled to No. 3 in the polls despite maintaining a perfect record. They improved to 4--0 with a 27--10 victory over Arizona State on Saturday night, in a solid but not-quite-dominant performance that they knew wouldn't send any voters rushing to return them to the top spot. If there is frustration over winning games and losing ground, the Bulldogs have been well-conditioned not to acknowledge it. "We've pretty much learned not to concern ourselves with polls and rankings," junior quarterback Matthew Stafford says. "Those kinds of judgments are for other people to make."
Here then is a judgment: The Bulldogs, to paraphrase former Arizona Cardinals coach Dennis Green, are not who we thought they were—at least, not yet. As illogical as it seems for a No. 1 team to lose its perch without losing a game, Georgia hasn't played like the best team in the country, the victory over the Sun Devils included. The Bulldogs did show off plenty of their assets against Arizona State, including a brick wall of a run defense that held the Sun Devils to four yards rushing, a spectacular freshman wide receiver (A.J. Green) and a tackle-hurdling running back (Knowshon Moreno) who seems to be the battery that energizes the entire team.
The problem is that the Dawgs also have offensive linemen who are so young that you want to read them a bedtime story—two true freshmen and a redshirt freshman played extensively on Saturday—which means that the strong-armed Stafford doesn't always have the time he needs to throw downfield. And, at least against Arizona State, the Dawgs showed a tendency to get careless. They had three fumbles but recovered them all, and they committed 12 penalties for 104 yards. (For the season Georgia is tied for last in Division I-A in penalties, with 10.75 a game.)
It might seem like nitpicking, but with the teams ahead of them in the polls, USC and Oklahoma, demolishing all comers, and with Florida looking formidable at No. 4, having whipped Tennessee 30--6 on Saturday in Knoxville, the Dawgs are going to have to tighten up their game to keep pace. Georgia heads into the meat of the SEC schedule this Saturday against No. 8 Alabama, which crushed Arkansas 49--14 over the weekend.
The Bulldogs didn'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 team coming off four consecutive two-win seasons. The Bulldogs' trips to LSU and Auburn along with the annual neutral-site game in Jacksonville against Florida are likely to make the Arizona State junket look like a vacation, which, for many Georgia fans, it was. An estimated 15,000 of them made the trip to Tempe.
AS A reward for their loyalty, those pilgrims witnessed the first of what promises to be a career full of brilliant performances by Green, the highly regarded freshman wideout out of Summerville, S.C. He caught seven passes for 150 yards in the first half, several of them jaw-droppers, including a tough, twisting grab for a 31-yard gain and a leaping catch for a 14-yard touchdown as the Bulldogs built 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 deep threat to complement the ground game led by Moreno, their Heisman Trophy candidate.
Green's emergence was surely part of the reason that the Dawgs seem so certain that better all-around performances lay ahead. They were untroubled by their shaky showing in a 14--7 win at South Carolina on Sept. 13, in which they needed an interception from free safety Reshad Jones on the Georgia three-yard line with 13 seconds left to preserve the victory. When asked what grade he would give his team's performance in that game, Richt responded, "W." Said wide receiver Mohamed Massaquoi, "A win is a win. You can't worry about style points in the SEC." True enough, but the Dawgs do have reason to be concerned about another kind of points—the declining total that until Sunday they had amassed each week in the Associated Press poll.
The offense looked solid enough in two opening wins, 45--21 over Georgia Southern and 56--17 over Central Michigan, but against a Gamecocks defense more representative of the quality they will face for the rest of the season, the Bulldogs raised some red flags with their play. The offensive line allowed Stafford to be sacked four times and pressured far more often than that. It wasn't exactly a bulldozer in the ground game either, as Moreno found only enough room for 79 rushing yards.
That caused Richt and his staff to spend much of last week reshuffling the line. Sophomore left tackle Trinton Sturdivant, the line's linchpin, suffered a season-ending injury to 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 the one at which they began the season. They were effective enough to open up some slivers of space for Moreno, who slashed for 149 yards on 23 carries. He also had two rushing touchdowns, one of which could more accurately be called a flying touchdown—on a nine-yard run he took off from the four and sailed into the end zone as if diving into a pool. "That's Knowshon," said linebacker Rennie Curran. "When the defense is on the sideline we keep an eye on the field, because you never know when he's going to do something you've never seen."