Friday, January 2
The future's not so bleak in this wasteland.
The last six hours of 2008 and the first 16 of 2009 were, paradoxically, both highly satisfying and oddly frustrating for Bulldog Nation. They showed just how good the Dawgs -- particularly on defense -- could've been this past season, and at the same time made us ask why they weren't that good when they had the opportunity to be.
So let's start start with LSU-Georgia Tech in the Peach Bowl, New Year's Eve. First of all, I have to say thanks, Techies, for allowing us Dawg fans a double-dose of postseason schadenfreude. Not only did y'all get your asses turned out in your own backyard, but you reminded an entire nation once again just how obsessed you are with us. It takes one deeply ingrained inferiority complex to get so excited with yourselves over a single three-point win that you can't stay within five TDs of your next opponent.
But obviously that game induced glee and frustration in equal measure in Dawg fans, because no sane person could watch it without thinking, Why couldn't Georgia have done the same thing? Well, the answer is, we did do the same thing to 'em, in the first half, at least. All that tackling LSU was doing, the beautifully executed assignments, the swarming to the ball? We did that in the first half against Tech, and if we'd kept doing it, if we'd maintained even a modicum of focus on defense in the second half, I dare say we'd have beaten the Jackets almost as bad as LSU did. How we didn't, needless to say, remains a mystery, but none of the possible answers were especially pleasant: Did our coaches get complacent? Did our players just get temporarily distracted after building up a sizable lead, or are they temperamentally incapable of maintaining focus against an above-average opponent?
This is the fire we'd been hoping we'd see all along.
Even though it was several steps down from the national-title game we all hoped we'd be playing in, I thought the Capital One Bowl was a tremendously important game for us, because it'd lead us closer to an answer to that question. If we got back to the Georgia way of doing things, if we got aggressive again and actually tackled players like we actually cared about imposing our will upon them instead of merely grazing them, then it'd be not only a solid win but also a sign that our previous problems had been noticed and corrected. If we just played the same old lackadaisical ball we had over the last month of the regular season, though, then it'd be a sign that for all the shame and derision heaped upon us hadn't made a lick of difference in our actual play, and that there were fundamental problems in terms of our attitude and mindset that a single offseason, or even several offseasons, might not be able to fix. The former would merely mean an isolated, disappointing, but not disastrous season; the latter could potentially mean the kind of long-term slide that claims reputations and coaching jobs.
But the former came true, and the defense showed up. Not only showed up but dominated in many respects, and even saved the team on a number of occasions in the first half when the offense wasn't clicking, and who the hell thought they'd be saying that after this one was over? I think Westerdawg hit the nail on the head when he described our D as a unit that looked "tired of hearing all the bitching," but they also played like a unit whose coaches had taken great pains to address their most glaring specific problems. The run defense that had collapsed so completely down the stretch clamped down on one of the nation's leading rushers (Javon Ringer) to the tune of 20 rushes for 47 yards. Hell, we even discovered a pass rush for the first time all season. And the tackling that had been so half-assed and indifferent during the same period got its swagger back, almost to the point of looking like the best units from the VanGorder years. I wish I'd been keeping track of how many times MSU faced a third-and-middling-distance, Hoyer fired a high-percentage pass in the middle of the field, and the receiver caught it within inches of the first-down line, only to be met with bone-vaporizing force by a Georgia defender who wrapped him up and drove him backward to prevent him from stretching out for the first.
Rennie Curran: great linebacker, or greatest linebacker?
And while I'm not the first person to point this out -- Lord, I wish I was -- the shining moment of season-encompassing irony came late in the fourth quarter when Reshad Jones, poor maligned Reshad Jones, picked off MSU's last-gasp pass, was met by a Spartan player who bumped into him as hard as he could but didn't wrap him up . . . and kept on going. Let this be a lesson to you, Reshad: That shoulderbumping B.S. didn't work on you, it's not gonna work on too many people. Lecture over.
It wasn't a perfect game by any stretch -- pretty damned ugly, actually, depending on your standards, for the first two and a half quarters at least -- but I told one of my fellow Dawg fans after the game that if we were going to win by 12, much better that it be a 24-12 win than one by a score of, say, 48-36. The offense took a while to get started, but I think we've been given reason to be confident by now that any team with Stafford and Moreno on it is never too far from breaking out. The defense was the group that had the most to proved, and they proved it. This one game won't take Willie Martinez off the hot seat in a lot of people's eyes, but it did prove that the talent, the drive, and the coaching are all there, it's just a matter of getting them all to operate at 110 percent at the same time.
Can we count on that happening more often next year? I would hope so. Not to sound like I'm making excuses, but these things have been kind of cyclical for Georgia, as I'm sure they are for a lot of teams -- we had a disappointing year not unlike this one in 2004, massively exceeded expectations in '05, struggled mightily in '06, and bounced back heroically from a rough start last year before underwhelming again this year -- so it's not unreasonable to think next year comes with a certain amount of hope built in. Obviously that hinges on whether Moreno and Stafford come back; if we only get one of them then I think we can still manage, if we lose both then it's a de facto rebuilding year no matter how much experience we bring back at the other positions.
Obviously I hope he stays, but let's be real here, an NFL salary buys a ton of Legos.
But what might be an even more important factor as far as our long-term prospects are concerned is whether the coaches have "gotten it" as far as nailing down problems or bad techniques and taking steps to solve them rather than sitting back and hoping they work themselves out over time. I've praised our coaching staff many times for keeping a cool, level head through good times and bad, which I think is an asset much of the time, but at certain times -- and I think we saw plenty of them this year -- it manifests itself in a certain sort of inertia, a belief that they don't need to get in there and make a big stink and get in guys' faces, that talent will take care of it and it'll work itself out. Obviously, 2008 showed that that isn't true, and to some extent our coaching staff is still learning these things.
I can understand why a lot of people would find this frustrating after eight seasons, but let's keep in mind that Richt went straight from being an OC to being a head coach, meaning that he had a far steeper learning curve in Athens than either Nick Saban or Urban Meyer had at their current jobs, yet he's still managed to win six bowl games and rack up double-digit wins in six out of eight seasons. It'd take a pretty picky fan to complain too lustily about that, and I'm not that guy.
I dare say there's some fight left in him, too.
So it wasn't quite as inspiring an end to the season as the last couple years, but it was an emphatic win when our program was in need of one, it added another W to the Mark Richt Victory Watch, and it showed that our guys weren't content to fold up the tents after a disappointing season. The wait for Knowshon's and Stafford's decisions on what they're doing after this season will be tense, no doubt, but for right now, we've got a pride-regaining win and a 10-3 final record to distract us. I'll take it, and I hope the rest of Bulldog Nation will do the same.
Random thoughts as we count down the last few days of the season:
· If you'da told me before this bowl season that Notre Dame was gonna score 49 points, my first reaction would've been, "How many bowl games are they playing, anyway?" Knowing what I know now, of course, my question becomes: How bad does your secondary have to be to let Jimmy freakin' Clausen throw for 400 yards and five scores? I think the minor reputation of ND's opponent, combined with a 7-6 record, will be enough to keep the Irish out of the final polls next week, but I'm just unsure enough about that to be really pissed at Hawaii for putting me in this position.
Ol' Derek really is starting to resemble his dad.
sun · The game won't be popping up on ESPN Classic anytime soon, but I was really happy to see Dooley's Dawgs -- by which I mean Derek Dooley's Louisiana Tech Bulldogs -- beat Northern Illinois to secure LaTech's first bowl win in more than 30 years. And it was awesome to see Derek get carried off the field on the shoulders of his players just like his dad did at the Superdome on New Year's Day back in '81. Kid's going places, and I'm setting the over/under at 3 years before he gets a head-coaching job in a BCS conference.
· Fun story about the Papajohns.com Bowl, and don't make fun because THAT BOWL IS A LOCAL TREASURE AND IT MEANS EVERYTHING TO US, EVERYTHING -- a couple weeks before Christmas I got e-mailed by a Rutgers fan who was coming down for the bowl and wanted to know what there was to do in Birmingham on arguably the two shittiest going-out nights of the week. I surprised myself by coming up with a pretty robust list of restaurants and bars to check out at their leisure. The day before the game, I was getting out of church and saw that he'd e-mailed me to let me know they were gonna be at the 5 Points Grill that night, so I went down there to meet them.
Whereas the neighborhood had been mostly N.C. State fans earlier in the afternoon, the Grill was filled to capacity with Rutgers folk in varying stages of drunkitude, several of them liberated enough to be singing "Livin' on a Prayer" at the bar. (Hey, they're from Jersey, Bon Jovi is like their Skynyrd.) Not long after, one of the singers was like, "Hey, are you Doug?" and he directed me over to where the group was sitting. So I got plied with food and drink for a couple hours by a group of RU fans who'd come down for the game, and they were great. To Nick and the rest of his crew, thanks for coming all the way down here to the Salty 'Ham -- congrats on your win, and we hope you spent a ton of money here. (As you no doubt noticed, we kind of need a new stadium, stat.)
Hope the scoreboard operator brought a good book.
· I know the general consensus seems to be that it sucked giant hairy donkey balls, but I kind of wish I'd caught this one. Anything even more consistently inept than the Auburn-Mississippi State chess match from mid-September had to have been at least a little entertaining, if only in a hurl-snarky-Mystery-Science-Theatre-comments-at-the-screen kind of way.
· Congrats to Vandy, who locked down their first winning season since Reagan's first term and their first bowl victory since I'm not even gonna bother looking it up in the Music City Bowl. I'm not too proud to admit I never thought y'all would do it, not in a million years. IS A NEW POWER RISING IN THE EAST?!? (Answer: No, but that would be funny.)
· Good job, Georgia Tech, those "45-42" rings really did the . . . oh, wait, I've already mentioned this and gotten a whole sackful of laughs at Tech's expense? Oh. Carry on, then. Never mind.
· As I type this, I'm reminded of what Georgia could've done in the Capital One Bowl but didn't: go into the game disinterested, half-assed and refusing to take their opponent seriously. That's what Alabama looked like in the first quarter against Utah, and while they've chipped into Utah's early lead to pull within 21-10 at the half, their one first-half TD came on a punt return and they have yet to execute the kind of heroic, momentum-changing play that would indicate that they're serious about coming all the way back and winning this. I have no doubt that Saban ripped his guys multiple new assholes in the locker room, but this ain't Tennessee or Arkansas State, guys, this is a team that ain't lost yet and thus has very few reasons to believe they can't hang with y'all. Here's to an interesting second half.
UPDATED: Thud. Tide Nation, Kyle Whittingham officially drinks your milkshake. Anyone care to hazard a guess as to what Finebaum's gonna be saying about this tomorrow?