Monday, October 26, 2009

It's Halloween. Trick or Treat, DAWGS?

I am a true Generation-Xer. You know, old enough to know about but not really old enough to remember the time when the DAWGS made the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville their annual feeding bowl and the team from Florida seemed to be little more than so many kibble and bits. As for the number one ranking that Florida currently sports, well I have flashes of scenes from the 1985 matchup where Georgia defeated the No. 1 Gators 24-3, but unfortunately my memories of the 47-7 beat down at the hands of the No. 1 Gators in 1996 are more easily recalled. Thank goodness for November 1, 1997. I was a senior at Georgia and road-tripped to Jacksonville with more tickets than I had people to give them to because seemingly no one expected the DAWGS to put up much of a fight. We all know what happened that year. I remember thinking that despite being a three touchdown underdog to the defending national champions, those Gators could be had. Those Gators were shaky at quarterback with Jesse Palmer and Noah Brindise and that was the key since Steve Spurrier’s offense depends so heavily on the quarterback position. They had stars in Fred Taylor, Jevon Kearse, Mike Peterson and Jacquez Green, but if we could just pressure the QB, slow down the run, establish our running game and not beat ourselves I felt the DAWGS could shock the world. Well, Jim Donnan, Robert Edwards, Mike Bobo, Hines Ward, Champ Bailey, Corey Allen and the rest of the boys let it all hang out that day and danced out of the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party with a 37-17 victory. We danced the night away to “Georgia on my mind” at The Landing and there has never been a sweeter ride home. I remember that glorious trip to Florida as the defining moment of football fanaticism from my college years.

In many ways, this year’s game shares many similarities to that 1997 matchup. The 2009 edition of the Florida Gators are also the defending national champions. The DAWGS are once again nearly a three touchdown underdog and coming off a defeat the previous year that was just one point shy of 40 points. Granted, the 1997 Florida team did already have a loss coming into the game with Georgia, but how much of a stretch is it to say that this year’s Gators might too have a loss if it were not for the horrendous officiating that we have seen in the SEC this season? In reality, none of this means anything. The 1997 matchup has absolutely no bearing on the 2009 game, but I can’t help but feel very much like I felt in 1997. I know Florida is scary deep on defense. I know that Florida leads the league in scoring defense and total defense. I know that Florida leads the league in scoring offense, total offense and has a Heisman Trophy winning, two-time national champion as it’s starting quarterback. Yet, in the month of October, the Gators have looked anything but unbeatable.

So, here are a few sweet treats to enjoy during the scariest week of the year.

When it comes to Saint Timothy, for all of his achievements that do garner respect, I still say he is not all he’s cracked up to be. Regardless of what others my want you to think, Tebow is not a skilled passer and does not handle pressure well. As for his brute strength, Saint Timothy running in short yardage is like Shaquille O’Neal dunking…I’m not impressed. Blessed with his size and strength, he should be able to do that. With that said, Tebow’s short yardage run can be taken away if you attack it as we have seen again and again from Mississippi, Tennessee, Arkansas and Mississippi State in recent games. Tebow is just like any other big back in that he must be stopped before he gets started. When you know Saint Timothy will be carrying the ball, you have to attack. Playing the Gators dive play well will go a long way in helping you to figure out when number 15 will be toting the rock.

Given where we are in the season, it is clear that everything the DAWGS do offensively begins with AJ Green, Lethal Weapon 8. AJ > anything Florida has on either side of the ball, Saint Timothy included. Opponent’s defensive game plans begin and end with what to do with Green, so distribution is the key for the DAWGS to keep that Gators defense off balance. How Florida chooses to play AJ…lock up in man…play zone…play a deep zone…will be something that Georgia offense will have to adjust to and the other receivers will need to have a good day, especially the tight ends.

In the kicking game, I have to give the edge to Georgia. The DAWGS key contributors, Blair Walsh, Drew Butler, Brandon Boykin (with occasional appearances by Prince Miller and Branden Smith) are valuable keys to winning the battle of hidden yardage in this game. Florida has the edge off the tee ranking 2nd in kickoff returns and kickoff coverage, but the kickoff return specialists Boykin (27.3 ypr) and Brandon James (27.5 ypr) are essentially a wash. Georgia has the edge in the punting game ranking 4th in punt return and leading the conference in punting with a 44.1 net/punt average. A key blocked kick would be HUGE in this game.

Now to put some real meat on this Dawg’s bone. In my opinion, here’s the real deal on this game. Florida leads the league in every key offensive statistical category except passing offense where the Gators rank 7th. Why then, when you watch them play, it doesn’t look that way? Two reasons: 1) Tebow leads the team in rushing. When your quarterback, particularly this quarterback, is your primary ball carrier the final numbers can sneak up on you. 2) Aaron Hernandez, the Florida tight end, is the team’s most consistent threat in the passing game. Riley Cooper (WR) is nice, but nothing special. Hernandez and Cooper have caught 60 of Tebow’s 84 completions and the other two starting WRs have a combined 14 catches. No other Gators wide receiver scares opponents because Florida has not established a consistent threat in the vertical passing game. This assertion is supported by the fact that that both Arkansas and Mississippi State played a lot of man-to-man coverage against Florida. “Hernandez and Hooks” seems to be the philosophy of this Gators team right now which allows opponents to squat on routes without the threat of being beaten deep, and this forces Tebow to hold the ball and that has led to sacks and bad decisions. Sounds like a winning strategy to me. With that said, it must also be said that the DAWGS could be vulnerable when our linebackers match up in pass coverage with Florida’s speedy running backs.

When it comes to coaching, that has to be the wildcard for Georgia right now. I say that because of the fantastic timing of the bye week. The team has had a chance to rest up, heal and prepare. The opportunity is there for a big statement to be made by Georgia. We will know soon enough.

Am I the only one? It just feels like Florida is ready to crack after a few close calls? They have dealt with the pressure of being touted as the greatest team ever assembled with the greatest player ever to strap on a helmet running the show. Everyone in the national media thought the season was a mere formality that would inevitably lead to Pasadena and a national championship. Could it finally be getting to them? Everyone tries to deny it, but it is simply impossible and pretty soon the players begin to expect certain performances and outcomes for themselves. Winning simply is not good enough. Urban Meyer can deny it all he wants, but these pressures are inherent to these situations and they are unavoidable. Sometimes teams manage to overcome these thoughts with great individual player performances or defining team moments, but more often than not all that pressure leads to cracks and eventually forces bursts. If things line up and the DAWGS put a whole game together, throw in a little Florida stress and this could be the Halloween that Georgia treats the DAWG Nation and hands out nothing but tricks to the Gators.


Anonymous said...

Not Terrence Edwards, but his brother, running back Robert Edwards.

Randy Powers said...

Shoot, Thanks Anon. Completely different set of memories for Terrence Edwards.