Youth movement pays big dividends for Bulldogs
Fernando Velasco, Georgia's senior captain and starting center, didn't need to look at the tea leaves.
He looked at the cold, hard facts and knew the Bulldogs would suffer through their share of growing pains on offense.
They were starting a true freshman at left tackle -- Trinton Sturdivant -- a redshirt freshman at left guard -- Chris Davis -- and had to plug another true freshman, Clint Boling, into the starting lineup at right guard by the midway point of the season.
Sophomore quarterback Matthew Stafford was in his first season as the full-time starter.
Their best playmaker, redshirt freshman tailback Knowshon Moreno, was buried on the depth chart.
And offensive coordinator Mike Bobo was in his first season of calling plays after taking over those duties from Georgia coach Mark Richt.
"We knew there would be some bumps and bruises, just maybe not as many as there were," Velasco said. "I think for a while we were standing around waiting for everybody else to make a play. For whatever reason, that changed during that last drive against Vanderbilt.
"That's when it sort of happened for us."
With just under six minutes to play against Vanderbilt, Georgia looked like a BCS team about as much as the Miami Dolphins have resembled a playoff team this season.
The Bulldogs were teetering, scoring 14 or fewer points in both of their losses to South Carolina and Tennessee, and were on the verge of losing to Vanderbilt for the second straight year. The Commodores were driving in a 17-17 game, but Cassen Jackson-Garrison lost a fumble at the Georgia 7.
Stafford, in perhaps his most important drive of the season, led the Bulldogs on a 10-play, 73-yard march for Brandon Coutu's game-winning 37-yard field goal as time expired.
"It wasn't pretty, but it was big just to get a win and to put together a drive when we had to have one," Stafford said. "We stayed calm, and I think that gave us some energy heading into the open week.
"Coach Richt sensed that we were playing a little tight and playing more not to make mistakes. I remember him telling us after that to let it hang out and go play. Guys took that to heart, and you see the results."
Starting with a 42-30 thumping of Florida two weeks later in Jacksonville, Georgia was a different team -- and a different offense.
The Bulldogs (10-2) averaged 37.2 points over their last five games, scoring more than 30 four times and more than 40 three times. They stroll into what should be a wide-open Allstate Sugar Bowl affair with Hawaii, having won six straight games and playing some of the best football in the country.
So why the sudden transformation, you ask?
The easy answer is Moreno, who joined Herschel Walker as one of only two players in Georgia history to rush for 1,000 yards as a freshman. The only other freshman runners in the SEC to rush for more yards than Moreno (1,273 yards) are Jamal Lewis and Emmitt Smith.
Five of his six 100-yard rushing games came during the Bulldogs' flurry to close the season. His workload went up, and Stafford's went down.
Moreno averaged 15.1 carries through the first six games and had 20 or more only once. In his last six games, he averaged 24.7 carries and had 22 or more in every game but one.
"We knew he was a talent coming in, but somewhat of a wild stallion, so to speak," said Bobo, explaining why Moreno started the season behind Thomas Brown and Kregg Lumpkin on the depth chart. "We didn't want to take any of his fire away, but needed to rein him in a little bit, teach him to be a little more disciplined.
"When Knowshon bought in fully, it just allowed his talent to flourish later in the year."
It also lightened the load on Stafford. Bobo had already given the strong-armed Texan more freedom this season to make checks at the line of scrimmage and get the Bulldogs in and out of bad plays.
But with Moreno's emergence, Stafford's pass attempts went down. He didn't have to throw it as much and feasted on defenses crowding the line to stop Moreno.
Stafford averaged 29.7 passing attempts in the Bulldogs' first seven games. In their last five, he averaged 23.4 and never threw it 30 or more times. That's after throwing it 30 or more times four times in his first seven games.
Here's the other thing about Stafford: He played his best in the biggest games. He had a rating of 206.3 in the 42-30 win over Florida (11-of-18 for 217 yards, three touchdowns and one interception) and a rating of 186.9 (11-of-19 for 237 yards, two touchdowns and one interception) in the 45-20 win over Auburn.
Stafford heads into the Sugar Bowl with 18 touchdowns and nine interceptions, which is transposed from his freshman season when he threw seven touchdowns and 13 interceptions.
"He knew we would have to do certain things early on to protect our young offensive line, and he did a good job of being unselfish," Bobo said. "We changed up our run game to go with multiple runs out of different formations and put a lot on Matt to get us in the right looks.
"Last year, we might have done that some on third-down situations. Now, we do it about 80 percent of the time."
Bobo said the real catalyst for Georgia's surge during the second half of the season was Richt. "You look at Coach Richt's time here at Georgia and that's been his track record," Bobo said. "Guys keep fighting and they believe in what we're doing no matter what the circumstances or how much we might struggle early."
In other words, it's the reason the Bulldogs have won 10 or more games in five of the last six seasons under Richt. Even last season, they rebounded to win nine games, including their last three over Auburn, Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. That's after the worst stretch of Richt's career, when they lost four of five, including losses to Vanderbilt and Kentucky.
With a win over Hawaii, Georgia could also secure its fifth top-10 finish in the polls in the last six years. No other SEC team would be able to claim that kind of run.
"A lot of people didn't think we'd be in this position after that Tennessee game," Velasco said of the 35-14 loss. "It's an awesome feeling knowing you're playing your best football when it counts most.
"Now, we want to go out and show the world we were capable of being No. 1 or No. 2 and playing for it all. Not to downplay the Sugar Bowl, but we definitely want to go out with a statement and show that we're one of the top teams in the nation."
From Oct. 27 on, it's hard to argue with his logic.
It's also hard to argue with the notion that this is just the start of something even bigger in 2008.
Chris Low is a college football writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Chris at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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