December 31, 2007

Sugar Bowl Preview: Dogs ready for Hawaii's punch

NEW ORLEANS - Mark Richt and June Jones want to make one thing perfectly clear: When it comes to their respective teams in Tuesday's Allstate Sugar Bowl, conventional wisdom does not apply.

When the matchup was first announced, pundits suggested that fourth-ranked Georgia (10-2) was in a no-win situation having to play against a 10th-ranked Hawaii squad, despite its status as WAC champion and the nation's lone unbeaten team.

As some wondered, what could the Bulldogs possibly gain by beating an upstart Hawaii program? After all, the Warriors' schedule included two non-conference games against Division I-AA teams Northern Colorado and Charleston Southern, and nobody has ever confused the WAC with the SEC.

It's those very reasons that some of those same experts questioned if Hawaii (12-0) needed to beat the Bulldogs in order to prove it belonged on the same field against one of the nation's best teams.

"I don't feel like we have anything to prove," said Jones. "We have fun playing together. The kids love each other and play together for each other. We've beaten, since I've been here, Alabama, we've beaten Michigan State, we've beaten Oregon State, we've beaten Purdue ... we've beaten big teams, so it is not like we haven't done it before.

"But we're excited to be there, and obviously, it's a big game for us."

Ditto for the Bulldogs.

"We have a lot to gain from a victory," Richt said. "Everyone wants to be considered champions, and we were not able to be Southeastern Conference champions, but we could be Sugar Bowl champions. I think that means a lot. Eleven wins in a season would be a tremendous accomplishment."

That wouldn't be the only reason.

With a victory, Georgia's seniors would win their 40th game as a class as well as set next year's squad up for a top preseason ranking.

"We want to finish out on top and be the senior class that propelled Georgia to a top-five caliber team," senior running back Thomas Brown said. "If we win this game, the worst we would be ranked next season in my opinion is No. 3."

Kickoff in the Superdome is set for 8:30 p.m. The game will be televised live on FOX, and no doubt be watching to see if Heisman trophy finalist Colt Brennan can continues his passing magic against the Bulldogs.

So far, no one has slowed the junior down.

Brennan is third in the nation in passing efficiency with a rating of 166.3 and has thrown for 4,174 yards and 38 touchdowns. He's also rushed for eight touchdowns to rank fourth in the nation in points responsible with 25.1 per game.

As a team, Hawaii has racked up a total of 6,351 offensive yards this year, and leads the nation in scoring with 46.2 points per game and has set numerous NCAA, WAC and school records.

"This is going to be the biggest challenge all year. This game, obviously knowing what they are going to do coming into it, obviously is big, but many teams have had the same feeling," cornerback Asher Allen said. "You pretty much go into the game having an idea of what they're going to do but they still put 40 points on you, so obviously defensively this is a big game for us."

The way defensive end Marcus Howard prefers to put a positive spin on the situation.

Georgia leads the SEC in sacks with 34, and according to the junior, the more times Brennan drops back to throw, the more opportunities defensive linemen like himself have a chance to make a play.

"The whole defensive front is licking their chops because we don't like to play against the run. We want to play against the pass - the whole defensive front," Howard said. "Hopefully, the coaches will let us do that in practice so that we won't have any inside (drills)."

Howard may get more than he bargained.

Brennan has no shortage of targets in which to throw and receivers Davone Bess (101 catches, 1,213 yards), Ryan Grice-Mullen (100 catches, 1,335 yards) and Jason Rivers (82 catches, 1,069 yards) as being the only trio of teammates to have over 1,000-yards receiving.

The three have combined to catch 37 of Brennan's 38 touchdown passes.

"The receivers and (Brennan) have a great chemistry together, and you can see it on the film of how well they work together," Allen said. "Again, it's going to be the biggest challenge for us by far defensively, and we just have to make sure we get ready for it."

The Warriors have plenty to ready for themselves.

Running back Knowshon Moreno made just about every Freshman All-American team out there after rushing for 1,273 yards and 12 touchdowns, while quarterback Matthew has posted excellent numbers (180 of 325 passing, 2,348 yards, 18 touchdowns) and continues to improve, despite the Bulldogs' renewed emphasis in the running game.

But just because Stafford, who has attempted 24 passes or less in five, doesn't coming close to sniffing Brennan's totals, don't think for a moment that the Bulldogs would trade their QB if the opportunity arose.

"Matthew is a great quarterback and he's done a great job for us all season," center Fernando Velasco said. "Colt Brennan throws the ball all over the place. That's not Coach (Offensive coordinator Mike) Bobo's style. We'll take a couple of deep shots here and there, but they're going for it five-wide every play. He might not have the same stats and numbers, but as long as we win I'm sure Matthew's not worried about all the hype."

Just in case, Richt is breaking out the black jerseys worn in the Bulldogs' 45-20 win over the Tigers.

"Our guys are excited about it. I hope our fans are too. Last time when we had this suggestion for the fans to get excited about it, they did and they made the difference in it being a good day and an unbelievable day," Richt said. "I hope our fans are excited about it and get in the spirit of it too."

Jones doesn't think the Bulldogs will need any help.

"We're in for a tremendous challenge in the Superdome with a whole bunch of Bulldog fans and I know how many come down there," Jones said.

Georgia had sold almost 30,000 tickets just prior to Christmas.

"It is gonna be like a home crowd (for Georgia)," Jones said. "We're, hopefully, going to have the whole state of Hawai'i there, too, to make it equal."

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