The surest sign that a team has taken its commitment to consistent excellence to the next level is that team's ability to perform in a dominant fashion even against the opponents the players know they ought to beat on talent alone in contests which are not played beneath the glare of the national spotlight or under other circumstances more special than the mere fact that it is a Saturday afternoon and there is a conference outing to be won.
We did not get such a sign in Sanford Stadium last Saturday. Starting with a lost fumble on the second play from scrimmage following Asher Allen's electrifying opening 82-yard kickoff return, the Bulldogs squandered numerous opportunities to put the game out of reach from the outset, allowing the Wildcats not only to hang around but actually to build a 10-0 lead in the first quarter.
Georgia was outgained by a margin of 297 yards to the Red and Black's 283. Matthew Stafford was much the worse of the two quarterbacks who took the field this past weekend, connecting on just 12 of his 22 passes for 99 yards, two interceptions, and no touchdowns. However much he may be blamed by the U.K. faithful, Andre Woodson completed 24 of his 41 pass attempts for 268 yards, a touchdown, and an interception. Without Woodson and numerous Georgia miscues, this game would never have been close.
If the surest sign that a team has turned the corner is an extraordinary performance even in an ordinary game, though, the second-best indicator of a team's progress towards dominance is its ability to overcome the adversity it brings upon itself and find a way to win even when failing to play its best . . . and that, we certainly saw on Saturday.
The Georgia defense limited the Kentucky offense to 29 rushing yards on 29 rushing attempts and kept the Bulldogs' four turnovers from producing more than three points: Knowshon Moreno's first fumble led to a five-play, 20-yard drive ending in a punt; Stafford's first interception produced a 42-yard drive culminating in a 31-yard field goal; Stafford's second interception yielded a four-play, four-yard drive concluding with a punt; and Moreno's second fumble generated a six-play, 11-yard drive finished off with yet another punt.
Despite a quarter's worth of fiddling around with an opponent that deserved better than the Bulldogs' inattentive hemming and hawing, the outcome never really seemed in doubt and, by the time Stafford directed a 13-play, 80-yard touchdown drive late in the second quarter, it was clear that the momentum had shifted and the day appeared to have been won by halftime, despite the visitors' three-point lead at the break.
That sense of the certainty of victory was augmented immensely when a blocked punt to open the second half set up the score that gave the 'Dawgs their first lead of the day, which they would not thereafter relinquish. When the lead increased to 21-10, a blowout appeared to be on the verge of occurring, but a Kentucky field goal and a Georgia fumble on the next two drives kept matters at least nominally in question.
It was not until Brandon Coutu's 46-yard field goal late in the fourth quarter that the issue clearly and finally was decided, but the home team's performance on senior day was better than it seemed at the time, even allowing for the squad's initial sloppy play. The Classic City Canines converted nine of their 15 third downs while limiting the Bluegrass State Felines to just five conversions on 16 third-down attempts.
While it oftentimes seemed as though Woodson had all day to wait for his receivers to get open, the defense eventually began to get pressure on the Kentucky quarterback, bringing him down behind the line of scrimmage in crucial situations. As expected, the Bulldogs ran the ball effectively, racking up 184 yards on the ground.
Thomas Brown split the carries with Moreno; the redshirt freshman and the senior each carried the ball 22 times and scored one touchdown apiece, although Moreno had 124 yards to Brown's 73. Paul Westerdawg argued, and MaconDawg agreed, that, due to his size and youth, Moreno should not get 30 carries a game week in and week out, even if it is appropriate to give him 30 touches from time to time. Randomterrace disagreed and, while I tend to agree with Watson's measured response, I would offer the following observation:
Knowshon Moreno might not be there yet, but he could prove to be something Georgia has not had in many a moon . . . namely, the sort of tailback who gets stronger as he gets more carries, building up steam until he is unstoppable in the fourth quarter. Paul Westerdawg is right that Moreno is not a back in the Herschel Walker mold, but neither is he Torin Kirtsey.
If the kid needs a breather from time to time during the course of a game, I do not begrudge him that, particularly on senior day, when it was appropriate for Brown to get his share of the carries in his final home game in a Bulldog uniform. What I would not want to see the coaching staff do, however, is become so committed to balancing the carries between two backs---Brown and Moreno this year; Moreno and Caleb King next autumn---that the second-best freshman tailback in school history is denied his opportunity to become as great as he can become.
Obviously, Mark Richt isn't going to squander Knowshon Moreno's considerable skills the way Ray Goff wasted Robert Edwards's first two years of playing the wrong position or Terrell Davis's senior season (in which the future Super Bowl M.V.P. had just 97 carries). The goal, though, needs to be getting Moreno to the point where he can run the ball 30 times a game on a regular basis. Paul Westerdawg is right that now is not that time, but hastening the arrival of that day ought to be an objective.
As I mentioned yesterday, my wife and I went to the game together after dropping off our son with his grandparents for the day. (It was the first time she and I have gone to a game together, just the two of us, since before our first child was born.) We cut our arrival a little closer than I would have liked; although we were in our seats before the opening kickoff, I missed the scoreboard montage.
Fortunately, clindsey posted the opening and I was glad to see that the blackout had replaced entirely the scenes from the victory over Florida. I know it was a temporary thing---by the 2008 season opener, a more judicious use of clips from both games will appear at the outset of contests between the hedges---but I liked the message that was sent when the win against the Gators no longer was given pride of place in the consciousness of Bulldog Nation.
This program has reached the point at which winning big games no longer qualifies as surprising. When a game is won, it's done, and it's time to move on to the next opponent on the schedule. The 'Dawgs didn't dominate on Saturday, but they did what they had to do to win a game whose potential importance could not be measured by its early kickoff time or its historically less than daunting opponent.
If I'd told you going into the game that Georgia would score 24 points and turn the ball over four times, you'd have told me a loss was all but assured . . . but, if I'd told you the Bulldog defense would limit the Wildcats to 13 total points and just a field goal in the final three quarters, you'd have felt pretty doggone good about the Red and Black's chances.
This team isn't on autopilot, not yet. Georgia isn't yet at the level of Florida State or Miami in the 1980s, or of Florida or Nebraska in the 1990s. This team is getting close to that level, though.
The coaching, the talent, and the energy level are, quite simply, better than they have ever been in Bulldog Nation. A couple of weeks ago, MaconDawg wondered, "Can we 'knock the lid off' again?" Games like this one---seemingly unimpressive, often uninspired, yet workmanlike and ending ultimately in wins---serve to remind us that, while the Red and Black are not quite where we want them to be, they are on the verge, tantalizingly close to cementing permanently their stature among the national elite.
The sound you hear is the lid rattling as an exceptional era of Georgia football battles to break loose. When it bursts forth in full blossom, the first half-dozen years of the Mark Richt era are going to look like a pretty good opening act.