Three weeks ago Georgia fans were calling for head coach Mark Richt’s head. They were in the midst of a four-game losing streak, their longest streak since 1990, with their latest loss, a 29-27 defeat at the hooves of the Colorado Buffaloes. They were 0-3 in conference play (L 17-6 at USC, L 31-24 vs. Ark, L 24-12 at MSU) and their lone win was a 55-7 crushing of Louisiana-Lafayette on opening weekend.
The ‘Dawgs were struggling and a lot of their struggles were directly related to the absence of stud wide receiver A. J. Green. Green, a junior, was suspended for the first four games of the 2010 season because he sold his 2009 Independence Bowl jersey for $1,000.
He returned to the field for the loss in Boulder, CO., but made an immediate impact, catching seven balls for 119 yards and two touchdowns.
Two games later and it appears as if the Georgia Bulldogs may have their swag back just in time to face the Wildcats. They demolished Tennessee 41-14 and then last week took care of the nerdy ‘Dores, 43-0. Both games were at home and both games were against two of the weaker teams in the league, but Georgia outscored them 84-14. Green proved to be vital in both games, catching six balls for 96 yards and a touch against the Vols and then following that up with three catches for 64 yards and a touchdown against Vandy.
In Green’s three games back with Georgia, the Bulldogs have put up 111 points. In their previous three games without Green, all conference losses, they scored a combined 42 points.
A.J. Green is a playmaker and when he is on the field he opens up things for the Georgia offense. His absence caused a definite ripple effect. Without him on the field freshman quarterback Aaron Murray (6-1, 209) didn’t have that security blanket he needed. Without him, safeties were sneaking up in the box and shutting down the Bulldog running attack. Without him they couldn’t use tight ends in the passing game as much because they needed them to block extra guys.
Without him, they were a different team.
Now he’s back and there is no one that is happier about his return than Murray. Don’t get me wrong, Murray’s numbers have been good all year, especially for a rookie. But, there isn’t a quarterback out there that doesn’t enjoy having a 6-4 target that can go up and get the ball and then run away from defenders once he gets it.
Murray enters the UK game, completing 112 of his 181 passes on the season, good for a 62-percent clip. He has thrown for 1,653 yards, 12 touchdowns and just three interceptions. His 1,653 yards rank third in the SEC, right behind Mike Heisline who is second with 1,791, and his QB rating of 157.2 ranks fifth in the league. He is the top-rated freshman quarterback in the country.
He can tuck the ball and run when he needs to, too. He has four games this season where he has rushed the ball for more than 30 yards and on the season he has rushed for 158 yards and four touchdowns.
Most freshman, even the talented ones, struggle with making costly mistakes. That hasn’t been the case with Murray. He simply does not throw the ball in danger areas. He has just three picks on the season and very rarely will you see him let go of an at-risk throw.
He is quickly growing into his role as the starting quarterback at Georgia and a lot that can be credited to the fact that he is surrounded by so many veterans. The Bulldogs started the season with starters at pretty much every position on offense and now they finally have Green back into the mix.
On the ground, you will see sophomores Washaun Ealey (5-11, 215) and Carlton Thomas (5-7, 170) pick up most of the carries with Caleb King out for the game. Ealey is Georgia’s leading rusher with 717 yards on 77 carries, good for 4.8 yards-per-carry. Thomas is the one who is benefit the most from King’s absence, as he has just 39 carries for 165 yards on the year.
Senior Kris Durham (6-5, 212) leads the ‘Dawgs in catches and yards with 22 and 453 and just last week had four catches for 112 yards and a touchdown against Vandy, but clearly Green is their number one go-to receiver.
Prior to the season, Georgia brought in defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, who installed a brand new 3-4 scheme. It appears after weeks of transition that the Bulldogs might finally be adapting to the scheme. They shutout Vandy last week and two weeks ago held Tennessee to 14 points. Prior to their strong performances the last couple of weeks, their defense was prone to the big play. Vandy had just two plays of 25 yards or more last week. But, remember that Tennessee and Vanderbilt rank 11th and 12th in the SEC in scoring and total offense.
The ‘Dawgs are long and athletic on defense and are seeing a definite improvement compared to 2009. They are allowing 75.5 fewer yards per game and 10.3 fewer points through seven games than they did a year ago.
They enter the UK game with the third rated defense in the SEC (14th nationally), behind only LSU and Alabama, allowing 290 yards-per-game. They are giving up just 17.4 points-per-game, which ranks 20th nationally. They are allowing just 103 yards-per-game on the ground and are holding ball carriers to under three yards-per-attempt.
Georgia’s struggles on defense have come through the air and more specifically allowing big plays via the pass. They are allowing 8.5 yards-per-attempt through the air, which is nearly a first down every play, so there will be big play opportunities for the Wildcats.
With Derrick Locke out of the game on Saturday, look for the ‘Dawgs to bring a lot of pressure in an attempt to rattle Hartline under center. The player that the Cats’ offensive line needs to most worry about is junior outside linebacker Justin Houston (6-3, 259). Houston, who is coming off a sophomore season where he was named second team All-SEC, is leading the league in sacks with 6.5, three of which have come in his last two games. He also leads Georgia with 11 tackles for loss on the season. Houston has the ability to rush from the linebacker spot, but can also line up at the line when Georgia moves to a four linemen set.
Last week the ‘Cats gave up three sacks to South Carolina, which is half of the six they have given up all year. Georgia will be sending guys so the pressure is once again on the UK offensive line to keep Hartline clean and give him time to make throws down the field. If they can establish the run with Donald Russell or Randall Cobb, via the Wildcat, it will do wonders in eliminating the pass rush.
Both teams will move the ball through the air on Saturday. I don’t think that is really a question. But, the team that can establish the run will have a definitive advantage in this one.
The keys to victory for Kentucky are play a full 60 minutes, contain Green much like they did Alshon Jeffery last week, and make big plays on offense instead of allowing big plays on defense.
Why does Kentucky need to play a full 60 minutes? It’s quite simple and very evident. In the past two games they have went to the locker room at half with a 31-17 deficit and a 28-10 deficit. In the first half against Auburn, the Cats gave up 31 points and 344 yards of total offense. In the second half they allowed just six points and 117 yards. Last week, they allowed South Carolina to score 28 points and put up 369 yards in the first half. They then held the ‘Cocks to 103 yards and zero points in the second half. In the first half of the last two games they have given up a combined 59 points and 713 yards of total offense. In the second half, those numbers dwindle to six points and 220 yards.
Their play in the first half has to improve. They can’t continue digging themselves holes. If they can play the way they have in the second half the last two games, this team has proven that they can compete with anyone in the country.
Alshon Jeffery had six catches for 65 yards and touchdown last week. Those are good numbers, but they are his lowest totals of the season. Compare those numbers to what he did against Kentucky as a freshman (7 catches, 138 yards, 3 TD) and they look even better. The Cats’ defense needs to contain Green on Saturday, much like they did Jeffery last week. You aren’t going to keep Green, who is the most talented wide receiver in the land and possibly the best overall player in the country, from catching balls. It isn’t going to happen. He is going to get his. But, if they can keep him from dominating the game it will significantly increase their chances of recording a second strait win.
Big plays killed Kentucky in the first half last week. They then returned the favor with multiple big plays of their own in the second half, which helped them get back into the game. It looks like big plays will again play a key role in this contest.
Despite containing Tennessee and Vandy, Georgia has a propensity to give up big plays on defense, especially through the air. Kentucky must take advantage. On the other end of the football, the Bulldogs aren’t a team that wants to go on 10-12 play drives to score. They want to hit that big play and score quickly. If you can limit big plays and force them instead to go on sustained drives, they have a tendency to get anxious which leads to penalties and even turnovers.
A lot has been said about Kentucky’s attitude entering the Georgia game after the big South Carolina win. I’ll be honest, I think the fans are hanging on to last week’s win a lot longer than the team did. I mean, the UK athletic department created shirts proclaiming an end to the streak. I think the players and the coaching staff looked at this win as more of a relief than anything else. They will be ready to play on Saturday.
They are now back in the SEC East race and a win against Georgia will get them to 2-3 in the league and right in the thick of it.
Kentucky keeps the momentum and downs the Bulldogs for the third time in five years.
Kentucky 38, Georgia 31