| By John Antonik for MSNsportsNET.com|
ATLANTA – The West Virginia University football team has a very difficult assignment Monday night facing SEC champion Georgia in the 72nd annual Nokia Sugar Bowl in Atlanta’s Georgia Dome.
The 10-2 Bulldogs are just five points removed from having an undefeated season and possibly playing for a national championship. Georgia is coming off an impressive 34-14 victory over LSU in the SEC championship game on Dec. 3 that became even more remarkable after LSU’s 40-3 destruction of Miami in the Peach Bowl last Friday night.
“Their talent level all the way across the board … you watch some teams and you say they’re talented at this position and maybe they’re not as talented here. Over here you have a match up that you like,” said West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez. “You don’t find that against Georgia. With the 11 positions on offense and the 11 positions on defense they’ve got players everywhere. “
Georgia coach Mark Richt has constructed one of the nation’s most outstanding football programs, winning 52 of 64 games as Bulldog coach since 2001 after leaving his offensive coordinator position at Florida State.
And Rodriguez is right: Georgia really has no weaknesses. The Bulldogs have one of the country’s most versatile quarterbacks in senior D.J. Shockley, a former prep All-American who patiently waited three years before taking over the starting job in 2005.
“I’ve known D.J. since I was at Clemson and he was coming out of high school playing for his dad,” said Rodriguez. “He was highly recruited and we thought he was the perfect match for our system before we left Clemson. Here’s a guy that was good enough to play for anybody in the country and he was patient.”
Shockley completed 153 of 277 passes for 2,311 yards and 21 touchdowns this year. He has also run 70 times for 251 yards and four scores. The College Park, Ga., resident threw for a career-high 312 yards in a win against Mississippi State earlier this year, and tossed five touchdown passes in a victory against Boise State in the season opener.
“He can run, throw it, can manage the game well and he’s a great leader,” said Rodriguez. “For my money, he’s the focal point of their entire offense. We have to stop him if we want to have a chance in this game.”
Shockley’s top pass target is freshman Mohamed Massaquoi, a 6-foot-2-inch, 180-pound former Parade All-American from Independence High School in Charlotte, N.C. The true freshman has caught 34 passes for 462 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
Yet, Georgia’s biggest match up problem for West Virginia’s secondary is athletic, 6-foot-7-inch, 250-pound tight end Leonard Pope who shows 33 catches for 491 yards and three scores.
“He’ll be eating peanuts off our linebackers’ heads because he’s so big,” said Rodriguez. “They’ve got a lot of weapons that they can go to. Pope concerns me, but so do their deep guys.”
Senior Bryan McClendon, who has started ahead of Massaquoi at split end, has caught 32 passes for 457 yards and a team-best five touchdowns. Massaquoi will probably move over into Sean Bailey’s flanker spot for the Sugar Bowl; Bailey tore his ACL in practice leading up to the Sugar Bowl and will not be available for the game.
“Losing a good man like that will hurt anytime,” said McClendon. “Sean has good ability to go deep and stretch the field vertically with his good speed.”
The Bulldogs have three quality running backs that each average better than 4.7 yards per carry in Thomas Brown, Kregg Lumpkin and Danny Ware. Brown is the smallest of the trio, weighing just 183 pounds, but he leads the Bulldogs with 658 yards and has scored three touchdowns. Both Lumpkin and Ware are much bigger runners in the 215-pound range, and have combined for more than 700 yards and three touchdowns.
“Their running game is obviously their strength and their passing game is based off their running game,” said West Virginia defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel. “(Georgia’s three runners) all have a similar style in that they all run very physical and they’re well coached in terms of not turning the ball over. They always have great pad level and they’re really tough to get a shot on.”
Georgia’s offensive line is one of the tallest in the country going 6-7, 6-3, 6-3, 6-4 and 6-9 across its front. Senior Max Jean-Gilles is the bell cow, earning AFCA first-team All-America honors in 2005. The 6-foot-4-inch guard has made 39 career starts and is a top NFL prospect.
“They’re very, very big and well coached,” said Casteel of Georgia’s front five. “We’ve obviously seen big people before but their tackles are 6-7, 6-8, 6-9 – our basketball team is not that big. Our guys are going to have to play with leverage and do the things that we need to do to be successful against them.”
Georgia’s defense has gotten better as the year has gone on under first-year defensive coordinator Willie Martinez. The Bulldogs are fourth in scoring defense giving up just 14.6 points per game and is 11th in total defense allowing 297.8 yards per game.
Georgia was able to overcome the loss of a pair of first-rounders in David Pollack and Thomas Davis with a so-called “No-Name” defense featuring All-America senior safety Greg Blue and junior all-SEC defensive end Quentin Moses.
Blue leads Georgia with 88 tackles and also has a pair of interceptions, while Moses has developed into one of the SEC’s top pass rushers with 10.5 sacks and 19.5 tackles for losses. Georgia has a pair of stout seniors up front in 315-pound Gerald Anderson and 292-pound Kedric Golston. The two have combined to start 57 career games but Anderson has been battling some injury problems and has missed some work in practices leading up to the Sugar Bowl.
All-SEC cornerback Tim Jennings leads a Bulldog secondary that has picked off 16 passes this year. Former walk-on quarterback Tra Battle has come on to have an outstanding season on defense, ranking third on the team in tackles with 66 from his rover spot.
The linebacker corps has been a work in progress using the same starting combination just three times this year, but junior weakside linebacker Jarvis Jackson has come on to rank second on the team in tackles with 73 stops. Danny Verdun Wheeler is fourth with 59 tackles. Junior middle linebacker Tony Taylor, strongside linebacker Brandon Miller, Jackson and Verdun Wheeler have all missed games this year due to injuries.
Jackson came back to lead the Georgia defense with eight tackles in its 34-14 win over LSU in the SEC championship game.
“We have to establish some things offensively and it doesn’t have to be in our running game,” Rodriguez said. “We have to get some first downs and cannot have a bunch of three-and-outs and make our defense go out there and defend three-fourths of the game.”
Georgia’s special teams are also exemplary. Sophomore Brandon Coutu led the SEC in scoring and ranks 17th nationally with 109 points. He was an SEC-best 7 of 9 from 40-49 yards and is 3 of 5 from 50 yards or longer. He is 23 of 29 in field goal attempts this year and 25 of 32 for his career.
Junior punter Gordon Ely-Kelso is averaging 42.7 yards per punt and was second in the SEC with 41 percent of his punts landing inside the 20.
And as expected, the Bulldogs have an impact return-man in sophomore Thomas Flowers, who ranks second at Georgia in career punt returns with a 14.1-yards-per-return average. Flowers had a pivotal 33-yard punt return in Georgia’s win over Georgia Tech.
The Bulldogs have 22 blocks and eight special teams touchdowns in Richt’s five years at Georgia, including two blocks this year.
“The thing you look for is to watch all three phases and find out which phase can we take most advantage of – offense, defense or special teams,” said Rodriguez. “They won the SEC because they were probably the most complete team in all three phases in the SEC.”
Georgia is finishing the 2005 campaign playing three straight games in Atlanta. The Bulldogs won at Georgia Tech on Nov. 26 and beat LSU in the Georgia Dome on Dec. 3. The Bulldogs are 3-2 in games at the Georgia Dome and have one of the country’s top bowl records, going 22-15-3 in 40 previous appearances to rank sixth among NCAA Division I-A programs.
“We’ve got to get off to a good start to get some confidence and keep their fans from getting too boisterous and just play ball,” said Rodriguez.
Monday night’s game will kickoff at 8:30 pm and will be televised nationally by ABC (Brad Nessler, Bob Griese and Lynn Swann).
Monday, January 02, 2006
Sugar Bowl Preview
Sugar Bowl Preview