Howard, hungry Dawgs ground high-flying Hawaii
NEW ORLEANS -- Hawaii and Colt Brennan came into Tuesday night's Allstate Sugar Bowl looking for validation.
What the Warriors got was an indoctrination into defense -- the SEC variety -- and a Georgia senior defensive end determined to go out in style.
Marcus Howard threw his own little sack party in the Big Easy and the Bulldogs threw their name squarely into the ring as perhaps the preseason favorite to win the 2008 national championship.
"I feel we're the best team in the country," Howard bellowed. "It's too bad we didn't get a chance to show it."
Howard's only regret about the 41-10 battering of Hawaii is that he won't be around for the fun next season. But after three years of playing in the shadows of future NFL defensive ends David Pollack, Quentin Moses and Charles Johnson, he saved his best football for the biggest and brightest stage.
The Bulldogs sacked Brennan a season-high eight times, and Howard had three of those. One resulted in a touchdown after he planted Brennan, jarring the football loose near the goal line in the third quarter and recovered it in the end zone for a 31-3 Georgia lead.
It was a snapshot of what Brennan endured all night in a four-hour marathon that probably felt like four years to the Warriors' record-setting quarterback.
"I saw I had a clear shot at him and wanted to hit him under the chin," said Howard, who had two forced fumbles to go along with his three sacks and was named the game's Most Outstanding Player.
The last defensive player to win Most Outstanding Player honors in this game etched his name forever into Sugar Bowl lore -- Alabama linebacker Barry Krauss with his famed goal-line stop against Penn State in the 1979 classic.
Howard's not predicting that kind of iconic status, but he was predicting a big game. That's because he took one look at the Hawaii offensive line on tape, specifically right tackle Keoni Steinhoff, and knew the Warriors were in trouble.
"When I saw [Steinhoff] on film, I thought I might have my way with him," Howard said. "Not trying to sound cocky, but ever since the Florida game, our whole defense had a swagger about themselves. The whole defense knew we were going to have our way tonight."
Indeed, Howard's finish to the season mirrored that of the team. He had just one sack through his first six games, but erupted for 9½ in the last seven games to finish with a team-leading 10½.
The Bulldogs didn't lose in those last seven games.
A converted linebacker, Howard didn't get his chance to be a full-time starter until this season. And there was a time when the Georgia coaches feared he might be stuck somewhere between a linebacker and defensive end.
"When I got my opportunity, I knew I was going to make plays," Howard said. "I didn't dream that I would be the Most Outstanding Player in the Sugar Bowl, but I wouldn't trade it."
Howard wasn't the only one saying the Warriors looked dazed by the Bulldogs' blend of size and speed on defense. Linebacker Rennie Curran, who had two sacks, could see it in their eyes after the first couple of possessions.
"It's hard to prepare for the type of speed the SEC has," Curran said. "I don't think the rest of the country sees that kind of speed, not with their schedule.
"They looked pretty amazed as the game went on."
Brennan, who took a wicked beating, didn't finish the game. Hawaii backup quarterback Tyler Graunke played most of the fourth quarter and threw the Warriors' only touchdown, a 16-yard pass to Ryan Grice-Mullen with 10:32 to play.
Hawaii, which came into the game averaging a nation's best 46.2 points per game, never had any success moving the ball until the outcome had long since been decided. The Warriors finished with 306 total yards, but two minutes into the fourth quarter and with Georgia leading 41-3, they'd managed just 157 total yards.
"They're very fast. They're very physical," said Brennan, who threw three interceptions. "It wasn't that -- the X's and O's. They were winning in that side. They were just winning their battles."
Doing his best to savor the Sugar Bowl title and what will be the Bulldogs' fifth top-10 finish in the polls in the last six years, Howard couldn't help but wonder what might have been had the Bulldogs not started so slowly. They lost to South Carolina at home the second week of the season and were routed by Tennessee a month later.
"I feel like if we had been in the SEC championship game, we would have beaten LSU," Howard said. "But it is what it is, and we're Sugar Bowl champions and that's all that matters right now."
Still, he'll have a hard time watching the BCS national championship game Monday when LSU takes on Ohio State.
"It doesn't sit well with us," Howard said of the Bulldogs being passed over by the Tigers in the final BCS standings. "We were No. 4 in the BCS and thought we should be No. 2. We felt we got snubbed. But it doesn't matter now. We came out and won the ballgame and let everybody know that we should be No. 1.
"It's great to be here in New Orleans and win this game. I just wish we would have been here one week later."
So does Brennan.
Chris Low is a college football writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Chris at email@example.com.
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