Wednesday, September 2

Them that don't know him won't like him, and them that do sometimes won't know how to take him: the Oklahoma State preview.

All I will say by way of introduction is this: Man, I'm glad to be doing these again.

My team? Worthy of being a touchdown favorite over Georgia? THAT AIN'T TRUE!!!!

Hometown: Stillwater, Okla.

Last season: Romped to 7-0 and a #7 national ranking before incurring a respectable 28-24 loss to then-#1 Texas in Austin. From there, the Cowboys' only wins came against Iowa State (who would finish 2-10) and Colorado (5-7); they got blown off the field by Texas Tech and Oklahoma, then lost by 11 to Oregon in the Holiday Bowl to finish 9-4 and #16 in the sportswriters' poll, #18 in the coaches'.

Hate index: Four and a half. It's not like Oklahoma State has ever been one of Georgia's natural rivals, and an OSU grad I worked with in my first job out of college helped me stay sane in Lynchburg, Virginia, for the better part of a year, which was no mean feat. But I'm getting just a leeeetle bit tired of some of the B.S. I've been hearing out of Stillwater lately, such as the "Georgia's the one that has to be scared" talk from linebacker Andre Sexton and the silly score predictions from über-booster T. Boone Pickens. We beat y'all by three touchdowns last time we met, kids. T. Boone, you couldn't even bring yourself to stay for the whole game. Show some respect.

Associated hottie: Ashley Grinols is a native of the Oklahoma City area, an OSU senior, and a model who could be described as "not difficult to look at."

What worries me: Let's throw out the "Were Big XII offenses that good, or were Big XII defenses that bad" debate here: When your offense averages 488 yards a game and finishes sixth in the nation, as Oklahoma State's did last year, it's pretty good no matter how bad the opposing defenses were. And a trio of extremely talented skill players return for another go in '09: quarterback Zac Robinson, who threw for more than 3,000 yards and a 25/10 TD/INT ratio; tailback Kendall Hunter, who rushed for 1,555 yards at a 6.5-ypc clip; and receiver Dez Bryant, who caught for 1,480 yards and 19 touchdowns. Can you picture Georgia's defense from the second half of last season going up against an arsenal like that? I'm going to try not to if I can help it.

Above, Georgia's 2008 defense takes on Oklahoma State's offense (dramatization).

To keep the Pokes from running wild on us, the Dawg defense is going to half to demonstrate phenomenal improvement in two particular areas. One is our rushing defense, which allowed an average of 226 yards rushing over the last five games of the 2008 regular season. I'm cautiously optimistic that Mark Richt learned his lesson after backing off on full-contact drills due to injury paranoia last year; we did manage to hold Michigan State's Javon Ringer, who outgained and out-touchdown'd Kendall Hunter, to a mere 47 yards in the Capital One Bowl, and the reports I've heard seem to indicate that practices this summer have been altogether more intense than last year's. But even with six of last year's starting front seven returning, we've got too much to prove in this area to take anything for granted.

The other thing we've got to improve on is putting pressure on the opposing QB, and there's a lot of lost ground to make up there as well: After notching 35, 33, and 42 sacks the preceding three years, we took down the quarterback only 23 times in 13 games in '08. This year's top four defensive ends totaled only five sacks last season. This is another statistical category in which we deteriorated markedly over the latter half of the 2008 regular season -- only four sacks in the last six games, which is absolutely pitiful from the program that very recently produced David Pollack, Quentin Moses, and Marcus Howard -- so maybe increased aggressiveness in practice will pay dividends in this category as well. But again, we're way too far behind in the numbers to be assuming anything here.

What excites me: I don't think it's unfair to say that Oklahoma State's defenses have been as bad under Mike Gundy as their offenses have been good. Here's a series of numbers that should be keeping T. Boone Pickens up nights: 97, 89, 102, 94 -- the Cowboys' ranking in total defense among all D-IA teams the past four years. Pass defense has been a particular problem for the Pokes, who have allowed at least 200 yards per game on average and a 60-plus pass-completion percentage during that span. Even last year, when they brought back all but one of their starting DBs, they finished 110th in the country in passing yards allowed; this year the only returning starter is senior cornerback Perrish Cox. (Yes, Cox was arrested last week for driving on a suspended license, but you're crazy if you think Gundy's going to suspend him for so much as a series for something like that.)

In addition, the Cowboys are even lighter than the Dawgs in the sacks department, having taken down the opposing QB only 15 times last season. This all spells a relatively favorable situation for Joe Cox: If our offensive line -- probably the most experienced in the country after USC's -- can keep him upright, which they should be able to do, he'll have plenty of time to throw and a fairly porous secondary to throw against. Their defensive line loses two starters from last year, and our average offensive lineman outweighs their average D-liner by more than 20 pounds.

Hi, I'm Georgia left guard Cordy Glenn. No, there isn't a total eclipse today.

The wild card here is OSU's new defensive coordinator, Bill Young, who takes over at his alma mater after successful stints at Kansas and Miami. On paper, Young can only bring improvement to the Cowboys' ragged defensive situation, but how much improvement is, as Senator Blutarsky points out, open for debate -- he's got a much longer way to go in Stillwater than he did in Miami, and he's got to make up that distance against much tougher offenses than he faced in the ACC. Even for someone with Young's pedigree, it's a little much to expect him to spin a lockdown unit out of one that gave up an average of more than 500 yards to each team with a winning record it faced last season.

On the other side of the ball, as good as their offense is, the Pokes are not without their problems. Yes, Zac Robinson is a terrific quarterback, and yes, Dez Bryant is a superb receiver, but . . . beyond Bryant, who's Robinson gonna throw to? Here's what's happened with all the receivers not named Dez Bryant since the end of last season:

Rec yds in 2008Status
TE Brandon Pettigrew472Drafted by the Lions (20th overall)
WR Damian Davis414Dismissed from team in February
WR Bo Bowling200Suspended after multiple felony drug charges
RB Kendall Hunter198Returning for junior year
WR Jeremy Broadway118Dismissed; transferred to Tennessee State

And that's not even taking into account Jamal Mosley, who was highly touted to take over for Pettigrew at tight end but got busted for pot possession earlier in the summer and quit the team just this past week. As Chris Brown states in his breakdown of the OSU offensive attack, "The Cowboys' best pass play last year was often 'Just throw it up to Dez,' " who finished the year with more than 40 percent of the Cowboys' receptions and nearly 50 percent of their receiving yards; he's probably going to carry just as big a burden this time around, only with even less of a supporting cast behind him. Not that this is a particularly groundbreaking insight or anything, but we need to double-cover Bryant all afternoon long and leave it up to Zac Robinson to figure out what he's gonna do.

Player who needs to have a big game: Defensive end Roderick Battle. As the elder statesman of our DE unit -- 20 starts in the last two years, and it would've been more if he hadn't been injured for much of 2008 -- he's going to have to play the biggest role in returning our QB-pressuring ability to its previous levels. The Cowboys have plenty of offensive weapons at their disposal, but Zac Robinson is still the engine that makes it all run -- he's a threat with both his arm and his legs -- so we've got to contain him early if we want to keep OSU's offense from running wild.

What does it all mean? There's a decent chance I'm going to regret having said this by Saturday night, but here goes: The more I think about this game, the more optimistic I get, and that's only partially due to the raft of injuries, suspensions, and general roster chaos the Cowboys have been suffering this offseason. (Not that I'd wish that kind of misery on people just for poops and giggles, but seriously, Dawg Nation, isn't it a relief for someone else to be dealing with that crap for a change?) Georgia comes into this game in the unique position of being both a) an unheralded underdog not subjected to the hype surrounding the trendy favorite and b) a team that knows from very recent experience that it can kick OSU's ass up and down the field. And in spite of our two big black marks this season -- having lost Stafford and Moreno to the NFL -- our position coming into this game isn't that much different, when you get right down to it, from what it was when we were preparing to kick off the season against OSU in 2007: Stafford was a rising star, but he wasn't that proven, having only eight relatively tumultuous starts to his credit from '06, and as for our running-back status, Knowshon Moreno had even less on-the-field experience (i.e. none) than Richard Samuel or Caleb King are going to have when they take the field on Saturday.

Granted, the situations aren't entirely similar -- we're going on the road for this one, obviously, and the Okie State offense we're going up against is probably even more talented and seasoned than the '07 version. And our defense has a lot from the previous season for which it must redeem itself, which the '07 defense didn't -- but keep in mind that 2007 defense only returned three starters, whereas this year's returns eight. And we've got 16 upperclassmen in the two-deep, which means we've got 16 guys who can remember being a part of that '07 unit that crushed OSU (and numerous other teams) and helped propel Georgia into a BCS bowl. Yes, they had a lousy back nine last year, but we know they can play. They just need to be inspired, and I'm cautiously optimistic that they will be.

Positive that at least a couple of those guys still have vivid memories of this.

As I said earlier, though, that's still a lot to be taking for granted. Recent personnel issues aside, OSU's still got a ton of talent on offense, and while I don't envision them rolling up the kind of points on us that Florida or Georgia Tech did late last season, neither can I picture us holding them to 14 like we did in '07. I think maybe the best thing we can do here, beyond any specific matchups or schemes, is simply to keep a level head; last year, just by way of example, we had Tech very nicely contained in the first half, but all it took was one 60-yard TD run to open the third quarter for everything to go irrevocably pear-shaped. So let's don't panic if Hunter breaks off a big run or if Robinson and Bryant hook up for a couple nice passes; just keep making plays and count on our superior talent and experience on defense to keep things under control.

That's something I believe we should be confident in Mark Richt's ability to do. Let nobody underestimate the importance of his 30-4 record with the Dawgs in true road games, particularly since two-thirds of those games were against teams that finished the year with winning records. And while Stillwater will be a difficult place to play, it's hardly the Death Star; our guys have played in nine or ten different opponents' stadiums over the course of their Georgia careers, and OSU's is smaller than all but a couple of them.

I expect this game will be neither a 45-42 shootout (which would be a very bad thing for us) nor a low-scoring SEC-style defensive battle (which I'd be a lot more comfortable with). I think both offenses will make steady, but not explosive, progress for the first half of the game, matching each other more or less score for score and keeping the halftime margin fairly close -- but the greater size and depth of our defense will make a couple critical stops late in the game and allow us to leave Stillwater with a 3- or 4-point victory.

And there will be much rejoicing, and the Lord will grin and the people will feast upon the lambs and sloths and carp and anchovies and orangutans and breakfast cereals, and T. Boone's pants will stay respectably and mercifully dry. I believe this will be the best outcome for everyone.

If you're trash-talking: Well, I think "Scoreboard" has gotta be your go-to option, obviously. From there, I think you simply point out the difficulties that Mike Gundy has had keeping his players off the police blotter for the past few months, to the point where he's apparently not even sure he can trust them to pull off a pre-game handshake without incident (hat tip to DawgterFeelgood on Twitter):

In an attempt to promote sportsmanship, the American Football Coaches Association has requested that all teams shake hands with their opponents before their opening game. But Gundy fears such a gesture might result in a brawl.

Gundy said the ninth-ranked Cowboys will have about 110 players in uniform Saturday and Georgia will have another 70 and if something happens, “I don’t know that we could get it broke up before the game.”

Our players have kept their noses impressively clean over the course of the off-season, and all of the trash-talking about this game has most certainly come from the OSU side, so unless this is a passive-aggressive, tired-ass reference to The Celebration from the '07 Cocktail Party -- and who knew Mike Gundy and Penn Wagers were such good pals? -- it certainly doesn't speak well of the confidence he has in his own squad's self-control. Oh, well. That sounds like a "YP," Mike, not an "MP."

I will run up and down Highland Avenue in front of my apartment wearing nothing but a Georgia flag wrapped about my nether regions if: Georgia holds Oklahoma State under 20 points in the course of a victory. A 41-38 win, while certainly more desirable than a loss, would still serve as an indicator that our defensive problems are far from solved. But if we can clamp down on the Pokes like we did in 2007, that would be a good omen indeed, maybe even the start of a defensive renaissance in Athens. GATA, boys.


Universal Remonster said...

GATA indeed.

Unknown said...