During last night's player introductions, I found myself sounding a familiar refrain. As the names, numbers, and faces of the Bulldogs' starting lineup flashed across the scoreboard in sequence, I seemed to say the same thing after each one: "Boy, we need him to have a good game. . . . Boy, we need him to have a good game. . . . Boy, we need him to have a good game. . . ."
Have no fear, Bulldog Nation. He had a good game.
Been there. Done that. Got the T-shirt.
It had been a topsy-turvy opening weekend of college football already. Mississippi State gave Louisiana State the most competitive game you will ever see that ends with a final score of 45-0. In between cutaway shots of a pitcher not throwing a perfect game, Washington raised some eyebrows on Friday night. Earlier in the day on Saturday, the Big Ten Network gave its viewers their money's worth when Appalachian State made me look like an idiot for being the lone BlogPoll voter to rank Michigan No. 1. (In my defense, I routinely admit that I have no idea what I'm talking about most of the time.)
It has been a long and difficult offseason for the 'Dawgs, filled not only with such embarrassments as the usual maddening arrests for sophomoric behavior and such disappointments as the loss of Paul Oliver over academics, but also with shows of disdain and disrespect. National commentators denounced Georgia as a second-tier power in spite of scads of contrary evidence. Fans of opposing teams showed up to talk trash. Big Ten bloggers indicated that they held the Red and Black in low regard and considered it a long shot for Georgia to replicate last season's 9-4 record. South Carolina fans stated that they did not consider the Bulldogs to be one of the Gamecocks' three toughest opponents.
By kickoff, I didn't want the win for all the usual reasons. I didn't just want it so I could update the Mark Richt Victory Watch and justify my team's No. 14 ranking in the BlogPoll. I wanted the win because I wanted the respect that would come with the win.
Just a little bit.
I wanted the win because it would remind everyone that, despite a seven-week downcycle in the middle of last season that produced three shaky victories and four genuinely troubling losses, the Classic City Canines still are one of the 11 winningest programs of all time and the top S.E.C. program over the course of the last decade and the last half-decade.
I wanted the win because it would remind everyone that Mark Richt is one of only five S.E.C. coaches to have posted four straight 10-win seasons, one of only six coaches to have won two S.E.C. titles in his first five years, one of only nine coaches in Division I history to have won 60 or more games in his first six seasons, and a two-time Southeastern Conference coach of the year.
I wanted the win because it would run Coach Richt's record to 33-6 between the hedges and to 26-2 against out-of-conference opponents.
Bulldog Nation needed the win to remind the world that Georgia is a fixture in the college football firmament, not a flash in the pan. We needed the win . . . and we got it.
Posting this picture never gets old!
Oklahoma State proved to be a worthy opponent, much more so than a casual glance at the final score might indicate. This was not a case of a Boise State team that was still a year away from being ready to make a splash on the national scene wilting beneath the glare of the spotlight. The Pokes came ready to play, with dangerous skill players and a good game plan.
Unlike Jared Zabransky two years earlier, Bobby Reid did not shoot himself in the foot. He played intelligently and well under the circumstances, but the Georgia defensive front, tired of hearing about its youth and inexperience, refused to give Reid time to maneuver. Although O.S.U. gained nearly as many first downs (16) as the host squad (18), constant pressure from the 'Dawgs limited the Cowboys to 266 total yards and permitted the visiting team to convert only three of 13 third-down tries . . . and none of their trio of fourth-down attempts.
Reid connected on just 16 of his 30 pass attempts and, despite hooking up with four different receivers for completions of 13 yards or longer, was held below 200 yards through the air. As many of Reid's passes were hauled in by Georgia defenders as were caught in the end zone. The Pokes lost 27 yards on five sacks.
You can't stop him, but you can hope to contain him.
I have been as critical as anyone of Willie Martinez as a defensive coordinator, dating back to the 2005 Auburn game and the 2006 Sugar Bowl, in which Georgia lost games in which the Bulldogs scored 30 and 35 points, respectively. I found particularly distressing the fact that, in 2006, the Classic City Canines surrendered 37 points to Tennessee, 17 points to Vanderbilt, 17 points to Mississippi State, and 14 points to Kentucky . . . in the second half.
Somewhere along the line, though, Coach Martinez figured out how to make halftime adjustments. In the last two quarters of each of their last four games, the 'Dawgs have allowed eight points to Auburn, nine points to Georgia Tech, three points to Virginia Tech, and no points to Oklahoma State. Let there be no doubt where the power lies in the S.E.C.
The Red and Black, meanwhile, outgained the opposition by 110 yards. The Bulldogs were more efficient than their guests, gaining 9.8 yards per pass and 3.0 yards per rush, in comparison to the 6.3 and 2.1, respectively, garnered by Oklahoma State. Matthew Stafford managed the game well, avoided the freshman mistake of overreaching, and coolly completed 18 of his 24 passes for 234 yards and two touchdowns. He did not throw an interception and he was sacked just twice behind his supposedly suspect offensive line.
Nine different Bulldogs caught at least one pass, with four of them bringing in two or more. Sean Bailey made five key catches, including some acrobatic grabs, and Michael Moore made up for all the left-wing propaganda in his documentaries by snagging a touchdown pass that had its fair share of zip on it. Although Mohamed Massaquoi had only one catch for eight yards, he threw a key block to facilitate a score and he demonstrated that you do not want him bearing down on you with bad intentions in mind on special teams.
Although Oklahoma State was determined to stop the run and the Cowboys' linebackers made certain that whatever holes were opened did not remain open for long, Thomas Brown and Knowshon Moreno combined for 118 yards and two touchdowns on 32 carries. While that is far from where Georgia needs to be, it's not a bad start for a guy coming back from a season-ending injury and a redshirt freshman seeing his first collegiate action.
It was nice seeing the commitment to the running game.
It was far from a perfect game and I did not feel truly assured of victory until well into the fourth quarter. Certainly, there are concerns to be addressed, particularly in light of the new kickoff rules, which distinctly created more returns and shorter fields, if not (in this particular instance) more scoring.
On the whole, though, this was a solid effort and a good outing by a young team taking on a quality opponent on opening night. I'm not yet ready to start talking crazy---not with an improved South Carolina squad coming into town next Saturday night---but I feel a whole lot better about 2007 than I felt 24 hours ago.
It remains to be seen what this season will hold for the Red and Black, but at least it seems certain that the reports of the Bulldogs' demise were greatly exaggerated. It appears now that the question is not how far this team can fall, but how high this team can rise.