Arkansas blossoms, Georgia wilts
Yes, J.H. in Charlotte, it might have been the crack talking when I spent the entire offseason hyping up Georgia as a possible national title contender. Uh-huh, G.J. in Houston, I’m not quite sure what blend I was smoking caused me to think the Bulldogs were going to turn things around and put together a special season.
After getting beaten up by South Carolina the week before, Georgia got outguessed, outhustled, and outplayed by Arkansas in Saturday's 31-24 defeat. The defensive front was nowhere to be found until the second-to-last Hog drive, the offensive line couldn’t generate anything for the ground game, and the special teams that were supposed to be so special caught a break on a Joe Adams punt return for a score that got caught back, and came up with a bad punt from All-American Drew Butler to give Ryan Mallett a chance in the final seconds.
The suspension of wide receiver A.J. Green continues to be a problem. While Kris Durham stepped up his play, Arkansas obviously didn’t respect anything quarterback Aaron Murray and the Georgia offense wanted to do, and teed off into the backfield. The problem, though, is that the offensive line that’s supposed to be among the best in the country struggled in pass protection. And now, Georgia is in a must-win situation against Mississippi State or else the season, and head coach Mark Richt, will be in the tank.
While Georgia’s demise is a big story, the bigger one is the play of Mallett and the resilient Hogs, who appeared to be folding in the fourth quarter. The D stepped up when Georgia was trying to march for a game-winning score, and Mallett, who struggled under the pressure of the drive before, handled himself well, coming up with the throw that might define the SEC season. Now the spotlight is one as Arkansas will be the trendy pick to upset Alabama, and if the team can play as well as it did against the Dawgs for the first 50 minutes, and the last two, it might be able to take an even more special step forward.
Is Georgia coach Mark Richt in trouble?
It pains me to even ponder that question because I recognize how much Richt has meant to Georgia over the past decade. Not only has he won a ton of games in Athens, but he’s had such a positive influence on the University and the kids he’s tutored. He’s the kind of guy you want to be in the ear of your kid for four or five years. However, is he still the guy to lead your kid to SEC titles?
The Dawgs haven’t won one in five years, and aren’t going to sniff the league’s mountaintop this fall. Not only is Georgia 0-2 in conference play for the first time under Richt, but both losses came between the hedges, including Saturday’s to Arkansas.
That’s inexcusable when the school began the year with such high expectations. Yeah, Georgia made a valiant effort by rallying from two touchdowns behind, but all everyone will remember is Todd Grantham’s flimsy defense down the stretch that allowed the Hogs to travel 73 yards on three plays in 33 seconds. That’s one of the worst late-game defensive efforts you’ll see all month.
For Arkansas, this rare win in a big road game could up being a launching point for a program that has a star quarterback, Ryan Mallett, an improving defense, and more confidence and maturity than at any point in 2009. The Hogs are peaking. Alabama is in the on-deck circle. Woo Pig Sooie!
Fans of the Louisville Cardinals are quite aware of what has happened on select occasions when Bobby Petrino has a substantial second-half lead. The 2005 loss at West Virginia denied Petrino a Big East championship. The 2006 collapse at Rutgers might have denied Petrino a shot at the national title. In the biggest game of the still-emerging Petrino era at Arkansas, a very familiar scenario was unfolding Between The Hedges in Athens, Georgia.
A 24-10 lead – and with it, complete command of Saturday afternoon’s SEC clash – had slipped from the Hogs’ grasp. Tentative playcalling plus a number of overthrows from quarterback Ryan Mallett allowed Georgia to forge a 24-24 tie, raising fresh doubts about Arkansas’ ability to close the sale on the road in the SEC. Yet, after a gutsy defensive stop caused by a third-down sack of UGA quarterback Aaron Murray, the Hogs got one last chance to win the game in regulation. Petrino, Mallett, and everyone else on the visitor’s sideline at Sanford Stadium was presented with a put-up-or-shut-up moment.
The Razorbacks answered the call.
The win is obviously important for Arkansas’ SEC West chances, but it’s the way this game was won – a refusal to succumb to the Petrino fourth-quarter road meltdown syndrome – that should give ballast to this team heading into the Alabama showdown. Arkansas was the better team for most of the afternoon, but just when a familiar free-fall had begun to unfold, Mr. Mallett justified the hype surrounding his 2010 campaign.
This is not a game in which style points count. This was the SEC road win Mallett needed – it was and is his first such conquest, after all – to make the Bama brawl supremely relevant next week. The Hogs passed one test. Now, they need to bank this mental toughness and spend it on Sept. 25 against the defending national champions.