September 9, 2011

'A very important game'

No, this hasn't been the best of weeks for Georgia head coach Mark Richt.

If preparing for the SEC opener against 12th-ranked South Carolina wasn't difficult enough, Richt has found himself on the receiving end of questions - pointed questions - whether or not he considers Saturday's 4:30 (ESPN) kickoff a must-win as far as the program, and perhaps as his future is concerned.

Richt's tried to stay above the fray, but it's apparent the questions about his future are already wearing thin.

"I view this as a very important game," Richt said during Tuesday's weekly press conference, when asked if the contest was a pivotal one for his program.

The same line of questions continued during Wednesday's SEC teleconference, and later during his final meeting with beat writers, Richt, only half-jokingly, suggested that he knew what everybody was going to ask.

Saturday, ESPN's College Gameday has a segment dedicated to Richt and the "hotseat" question.

But despite the flurry of innuendo, Richt seems focused on getting the most that he can from his Bulldogs (0-1) against the defending SEC East champion.

For example, when Richt himself broached the subject of SEC expansion during Wednesday's sit-down with beat writers, he offered a glimpse into where his thought process truly is.

"I really truly have no idea and my comment is very boring in regard to that. As honestly as I can say it, I'm trying to get first downs and touchdowns, red zone stops and I'm really not worried about it right now," Richt said. "If change is on the way, it's going to be a while before all the dust settles and when it does they'll tell me who we're going to play and we'll play them. I don't have time to mess with it. I have enough problems right now."

Bulldog players certainly aren't ready to start throwing in any towels after just one game.

While it's true Georgia's performance in its 35-21 loss to Boise State left much to be desired, players like defensive end Abry Jones are hanging their helmets on the fact they still control their own destiny in the SEC, providing of course they get past the Gamecocks.

"Even though we lost last week, the whole team came together and realized that we didn't work the entire offseason for just one game," Jones said. "We have more goals that we are trying to get to. South Carolina is the first game that we need to win to achieve some of the goals that we set for ourselves."

That said, the Gamecocks (1-0) have some goals of their own.

South Carolina is coming off its first-ever SEC crown, and with a number of key players returning, including arguably the league's best at their respective positions in running back Marcus Lattimore and wide receiver Alshon Jeffrey, the Gamecocks figure to present quite the challenge.

But longtime Georgia nemesis and Gamecock head coach Steve Spurrier isn't assuming anything regarding the Bulldog defense, which took its share of shots after last week's performance against Boise State.

"The Georgia defense is pretty much like always. Everybody says they're down a little bit. I say how can they be down? They've had a top-five recruiting class just about every year. They have ballplayers. You just have to go play the game. You have to block and tackle and throw and catch. They're very capable," Spurrier told Gamecock "They have as much speed on their defense as anybody. They dropped a few passes last week and they gave up some sacks. Their offensive line probably didn't have a great game. But they weren't picked to win the division by a bunch of experts because they don't have some ballplayers. They're a good team that just didn't play very well against Boise."

Of course, the Gamecocks present Georgia a whole new array of challenges.

First and foremost will be stopping Lattimore, who used the zone read to run over and through the Bulldog defense with 37 carries for 182 yards and scored both of South Carolina's touchdowns in the Gamecocks' 17-6 win.

"We have to get to him before he can make a move and get downfield," Jones said. "We're going to have to create some pressure in the backfield and block the holes that he likes to find."

Jeffrey, meanwhile, figures to test the Bulldog defense which must also find a way to keep quarterback Stephen Garcia from finding his rhythm.

Meanwhile, Richt knows Georgia's offense is going to have to perform considerably better than it did against Boise State.

It wasn't a pretty sight.

Between the dropped passes, penalties, and issues with the offensive line that resulted in six sacks of quarterback Aaron Murray, there are plenty of issues the Bulldogs will have to correct against a Gamecock defense which prides itself on physical play.

"Everything is correctable. The thing that was most disappointing to me was the pass protection, especially third down. Protection belongs to the running back, protection belongs to the offensive line, protection belongs to the tight end at times, and it belongs to the quarterback too," Richt said. "There are times when the quarterback can certainly get rid of the ball and not take the sack. Six sacks are way too many. The majority of the issues were on third down. We've already spent a lot of time making corrections of this last ballgame as far as pass protection is concerned.
"Also, you have a whole new set of blitzes and schemes and things of that nature, so a little bit different scheme, a little bit different blitz package. We'll have a little bit better idea of who is going to line up where and where they are going to bring their pressure from, but we can only go by what we saw last year and a little bit this last ballgame. We do need to improve, but we can."

According to Spurrier, so do the Gamecocks.

Although South Carolina beat East Carolina in its opener by a 56-37 count, the Gamecocks fumbled the football four times while the Pirates also gave up the football, including one fumble that Antonio Allen returned for a 15-yard score.

"We have to play a whole bunch better if we expect to beat the Bulldogs," Spurrier said. "They will be fired up. They're at home, they have a sellout crowd. It should be another knock-down, drag out, down-to-the-wire game. But we need to play a whole lot better. A lot of our guys did not play well in the game last week. If we don't get better in a couple of areas, we could be in for a long year."

Anthony Dasher is the managing editor for UGASports
and he can be reached via email at [email protected]