Even for those of us in Bulldog Nation who were unable to be in Sun Devil Stadium for the historic occasion, it was an exhilarating evening. It is one thing to see your team taking the field for a showcase game on national television, but it is something else again when that contest marks, in several senses, the emphatic reassertion of your team’s stature as a fixture on the national stage.
Nevertheless, that is exactly what Georgia’s game against Arizona State represented for the ‘Dawgs. After being confined to the South for every regular season outing since Vince Dooley’s second season strolling the Sanford Stadium sideline, the Red and Black ventured outside the region for a cross-sectional matchup of the sort that lately has defined such marquee programs as Ohio State, Southern California, and Texas.
Granted, some of the luster had been taken off of the face-off by the Sun Devils’ look-ahead loss to U.N.L.V., which rerouted "College GameDay" and left A.S.U. partisans questioning the honesty of Mark Richt’s postgame compliments. While no one mistakes Arizona State for U.S.C., the Sun Devils did share last year’s Pac-10 title with the Trojans and Dennis Erickson’s club is a resurgent squad in a league more like the S.E.C. than any other major conference save perhaps the Big 12. (I know some folks might quarrel with that characterization, but, when even the folks in Berkeley are sending in the gendarmes to round up hippie demonstrators so they can cut down trees to make way for a new athletic facility, we have ourselves some kindred spirits on the left-hand edge of the continent.)
Besides, it isn’t as though S.E.C. competitors haven’t struggled in road games against Pac-10 teams. The Men of Troy successfully defended their turf in the Coliseum against invasions by Auburn in 2002 and Arkansas in 2005, claiming victory by an eye-openingly emphatic margin in the latter instance. Tennessee absorbed a drubbing from California in Berkeley last year and lost to U.C.L.A. in overtime at the Rose Bowl this year. There also is the small matter of these selfsame Sun Devils having given L.S.U. all the Bayou Bengals could handle in Tempe in 2005.
In short, this one was never going to be easy. The ‘Dawgs just managed to make it look like it was.
That’s not to say it was a cakewalk. The Sun Devils seemed to play with greater intensity and better execution in the first few drives of both halves, and Arizona State certainly (if only intermittently) exposed the holes in Georgia’s offensive line and kickoff coverage. However, both Bulldog coordinators were cagy in their play calling, as Mike Bobo probed the opposing defense with three straight passes (all incomplete) on the Classic City Canines’ first possession and led with the run on the Red and Black’s second drive.
After those initial exploratory efforts, Coach Bobo did what he has done so well in more than one big game since the second half of the 2006 Chick-fil-A Bowl and turned it loose. Despite having to contend with a reshuffled offensive line and over a football field’s worth of penalties, the former Georgia quarterback directed an offensive attack which piled up 24 first downs and 461 yards of total offense, converted six of 13 third-down attempts, held the ball for over 34 minutes of clock time, and never turned the ball over even once. That’s a good night’s work in any neighborhood, particularly 2,000 miles from home.
While he has yet to turn in a truly flawless performance in a Georgia uniform, Matthew Stafford reminded us why his services were sought after so enthusiastically as his high school graduation neared. John Elway’s biological son may have been wearing No. 7 for the home team, but the Duke’s rightful heir was the rifle-armed Texas gunslinger wearing No. 7 for the visitors, who took his shots downfield and sidearmed darts to the tune of 16 completions on 28 attempts for 285 yards, a touchdown, and---yet again---no interceptions.
When asked by an A.S.U. blogger before the game which Georgia players the Sun Devil faithful didn’t know about yet but would after Saturday night, I named A.J. Green as one of the nascent Bulldog stars. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that was a good call, as the true freshman receiver caught eight passes for 159 yards and a touchdown that called to mind Larry Munson’s famous locution regarding another well-known rookie for the Red and Black. Welcome to the big time, A.J.
To say Knowshon Rockwell Moreno had 23 carries for 149 yards and two touchdowns would be as pedestrian as, well, saying the Grand Canyon is a hole in Arizona.
On the other side of the ball, Willie Martinez made his in-game adjustments earlier and more shrewdly than usual. While I was bothered by the fact that (as was the case in the Central Michigan game) the opposition opened the second half with a touchdown drive, I can’t complain about a defensive effort that holds a prolific Pac-10 offense to 212 total yards.
Yes, Rudy Carpenter got his yards; we knew he would. Carpenter’s completion percentage (63.9%) was higher than Stafford’s (57.1%) and both signal callers threw one touchdown pass apiece. However, the A.S.U. quarterback was held to 5.8 yards per throw. The Sun Devils converted just two of eleven third downs and, one week after the ‘Dawgs limited South Carolina to 18 rushing yards on 16 carries, they held A.S.U. to four rushing yards on 19 carries.
After sacking the A.S.U. quarterback in the third quarter, Justin Houston reportedly picked up the Sun Devil signal caller’s jockstrap off the ground and quoted his favorite line from "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade": "That’s the cup of a Carpenter!"
Once a team is playing at that level, most quarreling amounts to quibbling, so any grousing that the score could and should have been more lopsided is misguided. My SB Nation colleague, Corn Nation’s Corn Blight, took issue with the decision to kick the field goal rather than go for the touchdown on fourth down. I respectfully disagreed, noting that the field goal was the right call for three reasons:
- It was the right call strategically because a 17-point lead makes it a three-score game. Due to the availability of the two-point conversion, even a 16-point lead is shaky, since two touchdowns and two two-point conversions tie the game. If you can go up by 17 points, all you have to do is keep them from scoring more than twice and you win. When you’ve only given up two scoring drives already at that point in the game, that’s a good bet.
- It was the right call motivationally. The ESPN sideline reporter made it clear that Mark Richt let his players know in no uncertain terms that they had three chances to punch it in and couldn’t do it, so it was out of their hands. I suspect that might come up in the huddle the next time the Bulldogs are facing third and goal inside the five yard line.
- It was the right call in principle. With two chances to tack on touchdowns, Mark Richt went for the decisive field goal the first time and eschewed the use of his final time out to let the clock expire the second time. Yes, it could have been 38-10 instead of 27-10, but so what? A decisive win on the road is a decisive win on the road. Why show up an out-of-conference opponent we will see soon enough in Athens? In 1995, Tom Osborne went for a rub-it-in score against the Sun Devils when the Cornhuskers were ahead 70-28. A year later, Arizona State handed Nebraska a 19-0 blanking. That 1996 loss in Tempe marked the Big Red Machine’s only regular season defeat between November 14, 1992, and October 10, 1998. These things can come back to bite you in a big way.
That’s what all the Gator fans tell me, anyway. (Photograph by Phil Coale/Associated Press.)
That’s not to say it was a perfect game, or that any constructive criticisms are trifling. Although the Bulldogs looked decent enough in every other aspect of special teams play (including, at long last, kickoffs placed inside the five), the kickoff coverage still needs significant work.
Beyond that, I had heard horror stories about officiating in Pac-10 country---just ask an Oklahoma fan and you’ll get an earful---but I truly had no idea. We in the Southeast like to think of the West Coast as a haven for aging leftists wishing to indulge in the socialist fantasy of a law against bad weather, but I wasn’t expecting the refs to penalize obedience to the laws of physics.
I know that the N.C.A.A., determined to stamp out the thrilling sight of Boss Bailey going airborne to block a field goal attempt, enacted a stupid rule that prevents a player from using a teammate as a launching pad or a landing strip, but, even so, that was a pretty chintzy call on the A.S.U. field goal. Also, apparently, falling down with one’s legs in right relation to the rest of one’s body is a no-no; perhaps we should be grateful that none of our guys were flagged for having "too much booty in the pants." I know that, as a college football fan, I’m obliged to gripe about the officiating, but, egad, that was awful. Fortunately, if we were forced to seek appellate review of the refereeing, our appeal would be denied on the basis of harmless error.
It was, on the whole, a solid performance of workmanlike efficiency, so much so that a certain set of someones will be coming to the Classic City. Break out the blackout gear, boys and girls . . . ‘Bama is back, the Tide are rolling into town, and the exhibition season is over for the Bulldogs.