Penalties a Real Big Problem

ATHENS – Of the 120 football bowl subdivision teams, Georgia has earned more penalties than anyone, and it's not even close.

The Bulldogs have been flagged 53 times in five games for a worst-in-the-nation 437 yards – and given the particularly untimely nature of many of the penalties, those numbers may not do justice to the true level of damage done.

Whether it's overly aggressive play, a lack of discipline, vengeful referees or an unhealthy mix several problems, head coach Mark Richt said it's time for things to change.

"I've got to send a stronger message than we've sent to this point," Richt said, "and that's probably my No. 1 priority right now is to make sure I do that."

Ironically, Georgia's penalty problems may stem from a message Richt sent a year ago.

In a season of big plays, perhaps none loomed larger than the Bulldogs' on-field celebration against the Florida Gators in 2007. Georgia hadn't been playing particularly well up to that point, and Richt thought the problem was a lack of energy among his players.

So before the Bulldogs took the field against the Gators for their eighth game of the season, Richt told his players he wanted them to be flagged for celebrating their first touchdown.

When that score came nine minutes into the first quarter, the entire Georgia sideline erupted on to the field in a celebration far bigger than what Richt had anticipated, but one that seemed to do the trick in ratcheting up the Bulldogs' energy level.

Georgia went on to win that game 42-30 – then won nine more games in a row before Saturday's loss to Alabama. Florida coach Urban Meyer decried the move, but it was hard to argue with the results.

Beyond the long winning streak since that game, however, something else changed for Georgia. The Bulldogs were whistled for their celebration, just as Richt had asked – and the flags haven't stopped flying since.

In the 11 games – including the Florida game – since the infamous on-field celebration, Georgia has racked up at least 70 yards in penalties 10 times. In the 11 games before Florida, it happened just once.

Since that game, the Bulldogs are averaging 9.2 flags and 81.4 penalty yards per game – nearly double the rate during the preceding 11 games.

In all, Georgia has been saddled with 36 more penalties in the 11 games since the celebration than it had been in the same number of games before it.

"I think the team has been playing pretty much the same way, but around the nation the refs are obviously a lot more scrutinizing," said cornerback Asher Allen, who had an interception overturned against Arizona State after he was whistled for holding. "I think you'd find the same thing if you look at a lot of teams since the rules have been changed a little bit. I think overall the penalties have been more prevalent."

It's possible that various rule changes could have affected teams like Georgia more than others, but the overall number of penalties has actually decreased by nearly one per game from 2007 to 2008.

More over, the types of penalties Georgia has been flagged for this year have been particularly worrisome.

Of the Bulldogs' 53 penalties in 2008, nine have been for personal fouls and 13 have been 15-yard penalties. The biggest culprit to this point has been roughing-the-passer flags, most notably the one on Akeem Dent last Saturday that negated a fumble recovery on Alabama's first drive of the game. The Crimson Tide went on to score a few plays later and never looked back.

"I think they are calling roughing the passer different," Richt said. "I might have missed the memo or something. They might have said, ‘Hey, we're really going to be a little more careful on these guys.' "

With a woeful pass rush thus far – Georgia has just one game in which defensive ends recorded multiple sacks – it's also possible the roughing-the-passer flags have been a result of some frustration by the Bulldogs' defenders. Or, like Georgia's celebration at Florida was meant to create, it could be a result of the Bulldogs' aggressive style.

"When you're coming hard at a guy, and he cuts it loose, the official says it's a late hit," Richt said. "They've all been pretty close to where the guy can't get out of the play. … If the ball's gone, we've got to find a way to dodge those son of a guns, and if we don't, it'll continue to cost us."

Some of the calls – such as a tripping penalty against receiver Mohamed Massaquoi and a leaping flag on Demiko Goodman against Arizona State have been dubious at best, and several Georgia players have questioned their veracity.

So could it be that the memories of that on-field celebration are still fresh in the minds of some referees who now look at Georgia as a team with a bad attitude?

"That could be it," safety CJ Byrd said. "Referees look at the film. They talk. I'm not sure what the referees are thinking."

Whether or not the celebration changed referees' perception of Georgia, it clearly changed the team's attitude. After all, as Richt pointed out, the Bulldogs are 10-1 since they charged the field following that opening touchdown almost a year ago.

It's that one loss, however, that resonates most powerfully this week. Against Alabama, it wasn't a lack of excitement and energy that cost the Bulldogs. It was too much of it.

The celebration was the perfect way to unleash Georgia's emotions 11 games ago, but now Richt's biggest task during the Bulldogs' bye week may be finding a way put those emotions back in check.

"I've come down much harder on the team about these things," Richt said. "Before I was trying to get it done without getting them to where they're so concerned that they quit playing with the energy level that I want. But we've just got to stop. I've made it a much stiffer punishment for that kind of thing."

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