Mountaineers, Bulldogs ready for Sugar BowlBy Mickey Furfari
For The Register-Herald
ATLANTA — Ready, set, go!
That was pretty much the situation Sunday afternoon as West Virginia and Georgia applied the finishing touches to preparations for the 72nd annual Nokia Sugar Bowl Classic.
A sellout crowd of 72,000 is assured for Monday’s 8:30 p.m. contest in the Georgia Dome. ABC will televise the action nationally.
Both coaches indicated at a mid-morning press conference that their teams were ready for the big battle.
“I think our guys are excited to play, and they should be,” WVU’s Rich Rodriguez said. “We have been very sharp mentally, and we should be that way.
“Our guys have brought good intensity to practices this past week.”
Mark Richt, Georgia’s head coach, said, “The first day that we were in pads was the only day that I was not thrilled with practice. Saturday was a good-focused day.
“Playing in the Dome will be great for us. We have had some great experiences in there.”
Indeed, the eighth-ranked Bulldogs, 10-2 and Southeastern Conference champions, will be playing in Atlanta for the third consecutive time.
They won 14-7 at Georgia Tech, then trounced favored LSU 34-14 in a playoff for the SEC crown.
“Obviously, Georgia has the home-field advantage,” said Rodriguez, whose team is 10-1 and ranked No. 11. “So it’s going to be a big challenge.
“I hope we can get off to strong start. We’ll try to keep the Georgia crowd from becoming boisterous.”
Richt said, “Our fans have been fantastic in there. We will have a ‘dog walk’ before the game, and try to mirror what we did in the SEC championship game.”
The Bulldogs remain a one-touchdown favorite.
“I don’t put any stock in who is picked to win games,” Rodriguez said. “I don’t know how those people come up with that.
“But the Bulldogs should be the favorites. We are playing them in their home state. It will be a tough game.”
Told that some ESPN analysts are picking West Virginia to win, Richt replied: “I’m glad that it happened. I hope our players heard that.”
WVU will be relying heavily on a running attack, which enabled the team to finish undefeated in the Big East for clear-cut superiority.
Three first-year players have combined for 2,097 yards and 23 touchdowns on 325 rushes.
Tailback Steve Slaton (179-924-14) is the leader, with quarterback Pat White (107-875-7) close behind. Then there’s fullback Owen Schmitt with 298 yards and two scores on 39 carries.
“They do run the ball a lot, and they do it very well,” Richt observed. “They spread you out, and the quarterback causes some problems.
“West Virginia will run quarterback zone plays and power plays. It’s very difficult to prepare for a quarterback like Pat White.
“It was nearly impossible to simulate White. We had Joe Cox throwing the ball in practice. Their offense is hard to get a scout team to prepare you for.”
Georgia, in contrast, relies more on a highly productive passing attack. Quarterback D.J. Shockley has completed 153 of 277 passes for 2,311 yards and 21 TDs.
What’s more, he has been intercepted just five times.
Three pass-catchers have combined for 99 receptions, 1,410 yards and 10 touchdowns. Flanker Mohamed Massaqoi has 34 for 462 yards, tight end Leonard Pope 33 for 491 yards, and split end Bryan McClendon 32 for 457 yards.
But Georgia certainly is capable of also running the ball. Tom Brown has rushed 138 times for 658 yards, Danny Ware 100 times for 486 yards, and Kregg Lumpkin 57 times for 268 yards.
WVU’s White, who has started just four games, completed 54 of 100 passes for 708 yards and seven TDs.
Brandon Myles has caught 30 passes for 472 yards and Darius Reynaud 24 for 249 yards. The two wideouts own seven touchdowns between them.
Team-wise, WVU is averaging 31.5 points and 378.6 yards per game while giving up 16.3 ppg and 293.5 ypg.
Georgia is scoring at a 29.1 ppg clip and averaging 382.0 ypg. It’s allowing only 14.6 points and 297.8 yards per game.
Both teams rank among the nation’s top 10 in total defense.
Linebacker Kevin “Boo” McLee and safety Mike Lorello are the Mountaineers’ leading tacklers with 74 each. Free safety Greg Blue is the Bulldogs’ top tackler with 88, including 63 solo stops.
WVU won all five of its road games this season. Its lone loss was to then-No. 3 Virginia Tech 34-17 at home on Oct. 1.
Georgia has a 21-15-3 record for postseason play, including victories in its last three bowls and seven of the last eight.
The Mountaineers’ last postseason win was 49-38 over favored Mississippi in the 2000 Music City Bowl. That is the school’s only victory in its last 12 bowls
“Every year is a new year,” reasoned Rodriguez, who is 0-3 in postseason play at his alma mater.
He said he hasn’t seen a whole lot of difference in bowl preparations from one year to another.
“But there are some differences in the personalities of the teams,” Rodriguez noted. “I think this team is really focused and ready to play.
“This is a great venue. It helps with our recruiting exposure. I think we have a lot to offer players at West Virginia.”
He believes a victory here would not only help WVU in its long-range goal toward winning the national championship but also earn some respect for the Big East Conference.
Richt said, “I don’t think anyone likes to hear that they don’t belong. Usually the team that is told they don’t belong will play better.
“Everyone penciled in LSU to be in this game. Not many expected us to be here.”