Distractions, missing players, schedule combine to challenge Dawgs in Belk Bowl

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Hutson Mason runs a drill during a Belk Bowl practice Friday in Charlotte. (Steven Colquitt / UGA)
Mark Richt addresses his team at bowl practice in Charlotte. (Steven Colquitt / UGA)

Mark Richt addresses his team at bowl practice in Charlotte. (Steven Colquitt / UGA)

Welcome back. Hope you’re having a great holiday season and had a more enjoyable Christmas Day than Mark Richt’s Georgia Bulldogs did, practicing in Charlotte for this coming Tuesday’s game against the Louisville Cardinals.

I’ve heard from a number of UGA fans who are concerned about how things are trending going into the Belk Bowl, what with several key players out; offensive coordinator Mike Bobo gone, resulting in tight ends coach John Lilly calling the game in his place; and the Dawgs coming into this key game with only eight practices following a nearly three-week layoff due to recruiting demands and exams.

Of course, earlier this season Georgia faced a similarly tough set of circumstances leading up to the Missouri game and responded with one of their most focused efforts of the year.

Plus, while Lilly has not called plays in a regular game, Richt pointed out this week that he does have playcalling experience at UGA, having called one team’s signals while Bobo called the plays for the other in the spring G-Day games.

All of which is to say there’s no way of predicting whether the Bulldogs will take the field against Louisville primed to get their mojo back after a disappointing overtime loss to Tech and notch that psychologically important 10th win, or whether they’ll show up flat and distracted and give up the literal bragging rights to self-promoting Cardinals defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, who was coaching many of these Dawgs a year ago.

John Lilly has called offensive plays in the spring G-Day games. (Sean Taylor / UGA)

John Lilly has called offensive plays in the spring G-Day games. (Sean Taylor / UGA)

On paper, Georgia looks like the better overall team, though the Cardinals match up well in key areas. The 9-3 Bulldogs had the highest scoring offense in the SEC this season and a formidable rushing attack, but Louisville ranked sixth nationally in total defense and third in rushing defense, allowing just 93.7 yards per game. Of course, the Cardinals only faced one Top 25 rushing offense, Boston College, and gave up 166 yards in that game. The other rushing attacks they saw ranked mostly in the bottom half nationally. On the other hand, Louisville safety Gerod Holliman leads the nation with 14 interceptions, so Hutson Mason needs to be very careful in the passing game.

Louisville also could present a stiff challenge for Jeremy Pruitt’s defense, with Bobby Petrino calling the plays and an ace wide receiver in DeVante Parker. Working somewhat in Georgia’s favor is the Cardinals’ uncertainty at quarterback, where they likely will be going with third-stringer Kyle Bolin, a redshirt freshman, since second-stringer Reggie Bonnafon, who started most of the season after Will Gardner tore his ACL early on, is nursing a bone bruise to one of his knees. When Bolin took over from Bonnafon against Kentucky, he completed 21 of 31 passes for 381 yards and three TDs. And Louisville will be minus one of their two main runners since former Auburn back Michael Dyer has been declared ineligible for the bowl game.

The elephant in the room when it comes to the pairing of Georgia and Louisville is the fact that Grantham is intimately familiar with the Bulldogs’ offense, but that advantage likely is balanced by Georgia’s offense knowing Grantham and his tendencies extremely well.

In terms of common opponents, both Georgia and Louisville beat Kentucky (though the Cardinals’ game was much closer), while against Clemson, the Dawgs won and the Cardinals lost.

A likely key to the game, as has frequently been the case, is that Georgia will hope to loosen up Grantham’s defense with the passing game so that the Nick Chubb-led running attack can get some momentum going. Since Grantham never did seem to figure out the wheel route during his time in Athens, you also might see Georgia utilizing that with Jeb Blazevich or Jay Rome.

On the other side of the ball, the Dawgs will hope to exert pressure on the Cardinals’ QB, be it the relatively inexperienced Bolin or the gimpy Bonnafon, while trying not to let Parker get loose for deep plays. Georgia also needs to watch out for Bonnafon’s dual-threat capabilities.

Bottom line: Georgia’s 9-3 record came against much tougher competition than Louisville’s, but the Cardinals probably have the edge in terms of intangibles. If the Dawgs show up ready to play, though, their overall talent advantage is likely to be a deciding factor.

Now, let’s get to some Junkyard Mail. …

YardDawg writes: Bill, I’m really concerned about the Dawgs going into this bowl game with just eight practices. I know the coaches needed to hit the road ahead of the recruiting dead period, and then the finals schedule in Athens wasn’t as advantageous as that in Louisville, but all that time off (except for individual conditioning) after the Tech game, and then only four practices in Athens before four more in Charlotte sounds like it puts Georgia at a distinct disadvantage going into a game that’s now looking a bit more important than most of UGA’s recent bowls. After the loss to the Jackets, another loss here would severely erode Mark Richt’s standing with the fan base, I think.

Hutson Mason runs a drill during a Belk Bowl practice Friday in Charlotte. (Steven Colquitt / UGA)

Hutson Mason runs a drill during a Belk Bowl practice Friday in Charlotte. (Steven Colquitt / UGA)

Yes, Louisville definitely will have had more prep time. But with recruiting (which is also hugely important) and exams, I’m not sure how the UGA staff could have done it differently unless they simply did some fundamentals work led by the grad assistants the week after the Tech game. And I’m not sure how much that would have been worth. And considering how poorly Georgia showed up after extra prep time this season with the bye weeks, the Dawgs might be better off with a shorter, more condensed practice routine. I think the fact they practiced on Christmas Day indicates the staff knows how important this game is to the program.

David Rosenberg writes: Bill, I would like to see Georgia do two things: 1.) Richt goes back to coaching QB’s and calling plays; although he gives Coach McClendon or Coach Friend more responsibility on the offensive side of the ball. 2.) Georgia makes a push to interview (WAIT FOR A NAME NOT ON THE RADAR) … Scottie Montgomery (Duke’s offensive coordinator).

While Richt is working with the quarterbacks for the bowl game, I think the fact he delegated the playcalling to Lilly indicates he’s not really inclined to move into handling those jobs on a permanent basis. As for Montgomery, he’s only been Duke’s OC for one season. I think perhaps the man he replaced, Kurt Roper, is more likely to draw consideration from Georgia, along with the guys at FSU and others.

Ben Gray writes: Bill, As a long time Dawg, I’m concerned about the accusations being thrown out that McGarity and Richt have an icy relationship and that’s why no counter offer was given to Bobo. Some are saying on Facebook that Greg is trying to force Richt out to get [Dan] Mullen or [Kirby] Smart. What are your thoughts on this? Is this the reason why we still have no indoor facility in the works? Is this bad relationship gonna cause a ripple effect with other assistants (Pruitt, etc.)? Or is this just a really cruel rumor?

Rumors claim there's a rift between athletic director Greg McGarity and Mark Richt. (John Kelley / UGA)

Rumors claim there’s a rift between athletic director Greg McGarity and Mark Richt. (John Kelley / UGA)

People on Facebook (and elsewhere online) say a lot, much of which is uninformed speculation, third-hand hearsay passed along in an attempt to burnish their self-declared “insider” status or, worse, cynical pot-stirring.

Realistically, there was no counter offer UGA could have made to Bobo. Even if they had tried to match CSU’s pay offer by nearly tripling Bobo’s salary, they still couldn’t have given him what he really wanted: a chance to be head coach.

As for McGarity and Richt’s relationship, I’m not privy to the inner workings of it. From the outside, it may not appear to be the warmest I’ve ever seen between an athletic director and coach, but I certainly wouldn’t call it cool.

Yes, in his interview with Mark Bradley, McGarity didn’t exactly offer an overwhelming endorsement when asked if he thinks Richt is capable of winning a championship. “Until I’m convinced he is not, then I believe he can,” he said. And, yes, some did think McGarity perhaps tweaked Richt in his chat with Bradley when he noted that some improvements requested by the head coach (renovating the football locker room at the stadium and creating a recruiting room in the stadium) moved ahead as soon as Richt asked for them. McGarity made a point of saying that, if the coach doesn’t ask for something, he can’t know it’s important. Still, I think that was more intended as McGarity’s defense against criticisms that he’s too stingy and doesn’t give UGA’s athletic programs some of the resources other schools have.

More importantly, I can’t think of anything that Richt has bothered to ask for publicly that he hasn’t gotten. UGA certainly moved quickly to lure Jeremy Pruitt away from FSU last year. And the indoor practice facility is in the works, as numerous news stories have detailed, though it won’t be ready for next season as Pruitt wanted. It’s worth noting that when Richt had a chance to get one under McGarity’s predecessor, Damon Evans, he opted instead for an expansion and renovation of the team’s facilities at Butts-Mehre. Richt has only really come around to seeing an indoor facility as a priority in the past season or so, probably because Pruitt and others have made him aware that the lack of one is being used against UGA in recruiting.

Bottom line: I don’t think McGarity and Richt are best buddies (few bosses and employees are, for that matter), but I haven’t seen any signs that their relationship is a problem for the football team. I think it’s more a case of folks “seeing” what they’re looking to find.

Matt Mashburn writes: Your Christmas present to me was your writing this one sentence: “There was always the minority faction in Bulldogs fandom (disproportionately present in the comments on this blog) that preferred to call him Coach Boo-Boo and blamed him for every misfortune that befell UGA football.” (emphasis added). Thank you for my present.  I LOVE it!

You’re welcome, Matt. It’s just a fact of life in the blog world that people inclined to gripe and moan are more likely to comment than those who take a more positive view. Plus, of course, the offensive coordinator, like the head coach and the quarterback, is among the easiest and most high-profile targets whenever something goes wrong.

Might Mike Bobo one day return to UGA as head coach?  (Philip Williams / UGA)

Might Mike Bobo one day return to UGA as head coach? (Philip Williams / UGA)

Randy Jones writes: Mike Bobo, hate to see him go, but he well deserves it, he has improved each year. Hope he keeps all of his UGA apparel because he will need it when he comes back as head coach.

Certainly, getting head coaching experience elsewhere, especially if he’s successful, would make Bobo a much stronger candidate when the job comes open at Georgia than being an in-house applicant as an assistant.

Steve Upshaw writes: Bill, The losses this season have affected me profoundly; more so I believe than any time during my 40 seasons of passionately supporting the Dogs. We attend every game in Athens and rarely miss a road game, every year Bill, including bowl games. I cannot think of a scenario where we would even consider going to the Belk Bowl. … I think more people have taken this unfulfilled season very, very hard. So now we do what we every year: We optimistically wait for next year. But the Einstein theory applies here, “doing the same thing while expecting different result. ….” Did you see Coach Mark Richt’s reaction after Malcolm scored the go-ahead TD on fourth down against Tech? If you didn’t, watch it please. If you did, you understand my frustration.

Actually, the complaint from some fans that Richt didn’t show enough emotion after that score is something I don’t really understand. I don’t want to see my team’s head coach getting too emotional until the game is over. And ritualistic reactions, like Gus Malzahn’s “boom” after every score, don’t do anything for me, either. I do agree with you, though, that the loss to Tech, coupled with not getting into the top tier of bowls, has left Georgia’s fan base more depressed than one would expect from a 9-3 record. I think that’s a big reason why winning in Charlotte is more important than it might otherwise be.

Nick Marshall is one of many former UGA players who've found success elsewhere. (Associated Press)

Nick Marshall is one of many former UGA players who’ve found success elsewhere. (Associated Press)

Ryan Hayes writes: As a senior student at UGA my final game at Sanford Stadium left an ill taste in my mouth. I support Richt 100% because he does not put up with bad behavior off the field. … It makes me proud to be a Dawg because every other school looks the other way. Zach Mettenberger picked up by LSU and then the NFL,  Isaiah Crowell picked up by Alabama State and the the NFL, Nick Marshall picked up by Auburn and [played for] a national championship, Tray Matthews picked up by Auburn, Josh Harvey-Clemons picked up by Louisville to play in 2015. I would rather be 9-3 than have people who commit crimes, weapons violations and stealing from teammates or win a championship with a guy that steals crab legs and yells obscenities in public areas. I’m proud to be a Dawg even though we lost 3 games we should have won due to coaching mistakes. Character is what counts. Any other university would not have immediately benched Todd Gurley, just like FSU, but we did. … While I can’t put my hand around how we can blow out Auburn and lose to Florida, I support Richt. He is a Bulldawg to the bone. Go Dawgs.

You’ve pretty well summed up the schism in the Bulldog Nation between Richt supporters and those who want him gone. To some folks, it’s not character that counts, but winning. Just winning. And they don’t really care how it’s accomplished. Others see building character as the head coach’s main job. Most fans, I believe, fall somewhere in the middle of those two extremes.

OkieDawg writes: Bill, The books are now closed on the 2011 recruiting class that we all referred to as the “Dream Team.”  By my count, there was about a 25% attrition rate. There were certainly plenty of disappointments in that group along with some pleasant surprises.  In 2011, I felt really good about that class taking UGA to new heights (which makes this year’s losses to SC, Florida and GT even more disappointing). As you look back on the potential of the Dream Team and you measure it against the actual results of the Dream Team, how do you rate them?  And if, in your opinion, they did not measure up, then why?

I think what happened with that particular class mainly underlines the futility of getting too wrapped up in the “wins” and “losses” of recruiting. Some kids come out of high school ready to compete at the higher level, but you also have a lot of guys who look like worldbeaters but may take a long time to come close to reaching their potential. Some never will for various reasons, including that they don’t belong at a school like UGA. And then there are the three-stars who might not have gotten recruitniks excited, but who provide the backbone of your team. I don’t blame Richt for coming up with the Dream Team tag. It helped juice UGA’s recruiting effort to a strong finish that year, even if it did perhaps overpromise to the fan base. But I think there’ve been stronger classes signed under Richt that weren’t saddled with such a label and were better for it.

uga super g logoMike Crawford writes: I am from Rome, Ga., but I live in China Grove, N.C. I don’t get a lot of Bulldog info up here so I enjoy seeing your articles online on AJC. I’m not sure if I can say I am the biggest Bulldog fan on the planet, but I am confident there are very few who could be bigger fans. On my own (no one else in my family paid attention to any college sport), I realized my destiny as a Dawg when I was 6 and have always been absolutely rabid. I did not get a chance to attend Athens (I went into the military and then moved to North Carolina), but that did not stop me from being what I am today; a full-grown, 44-year-old kid. My email and license plate are both DAWG4LYF, my man cave is called the DAWG DEN … even my wedding was planned around Georgia football (my wife scheduled it for a bye week). I don’t get to do as much as I wish, but I will be at the Belk Bowl and I will attend my first game at Stegeman the following Saturday. I try to get to Sanford once a year.  I wear only Georgia gear for college and NFL gear of former Georgia players. My crazy comes out for the GT game … I used to drag a Georgia Tech Barbie under my car and then burn it before the game each year but I think I made collectables out of them, so this year, I was given a Buzz doll to burn by my daughter. My prized possession is the stadium donation brick my wife bought me for my 40th birthday. I consider myself a logical UGA fan but I guess, like all true fans, I have my illogical moments. You are a Bulldog after my own heart and I hope to bump into you some time, just to say hey, keep writing your usual good stuff so I know what is going on down there. Thanks for allowing me to bore you for a few moments.

Mike, I’m never bored hearing about Bulldogs’ fans devotion to UGA. It’s part of what makes this job fun.

Go Dogs!

Got something you want to discuss concerning UGA athletics? Or a question for the Junkyard Blawg? Email junkyardblawg@gmail.com.

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— Bill King, Junkyard Blawg

Junkyard Blawg mugBill King is an Athens native and a graduate of the University of Georgia’s Henry W. Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication. A lifelong Bulldogs fan, he sold programs at Sanford Stadium as a teen and has been a football season ticket holder since leaving school. He has worked at the AJC since college and spent 10 years as the Constitution’s rock music critic before moving into copy editing on the old afternoon Journal. In addition to blogging, he’s now a story editor.

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