VU-UGA: War between the wounded psyches

Saturday's Vanderbilt-Georgia game is a contest between two teams with bruised psyches. Which team will be able to clear away the cobwebs? Here's an essential primer.<BR><i> The Commodores (1-4, 1-2 SEC) visit the No. 12 Bulldogs (4-1, 2-1) at 11:30 am CT at Sanford Stadium in Athens. (TV: Jefferson-Pilot. Radio: 104.5 The Zone.)</I>

Saturday's game between Vanderbilt (1-4, 1-2 SEC) and Georgia (4-1, 2-1) is a matchup between two teams with wounded psyches. The Commodores, of course, suffered through the worst second-half meltdown in recent history last week in a 37-34 loss to Rutgers; Vandy led 27-3 early in the second half and appeared to be cruising, when the wheels abruptly fell off the cart.

Georgia fans, meanwhile, are dealing from the depression that comes from seeing your national championship hopes go down the tubes. The Bulldogs entered last week's game vs. Tennessee undefeated, ranked No. 3, and with legitimate hopes of sailing into the Orange Bowl. The Vols derailed all that with a 19-14 win between the fabled hedges of Sanford Stadium.

After Georgia had manhandled LSU the week before and Auburn had destroyed Tennessee, the Vols were given little chance of reversing a four-game slide in the series vs. Georgia. But strange things sometimes happen in college football, and Phillip Fulmer's team turned the SEC Eastern Division race on its ear. Georgia fans were decimated, and even beloved coach Mark Richt came in for some criticism for clock-management issues late in the game.

The manner in which the Vols deconstructed Georgia was of particular interest. Tennessee whipped the Bulldogs on both the offensive and defensive lines. The Vols exposed some of the problems Georgia has been having on the offensive line and were able to bring pressure on quarterback David Greene with nothing more than a four-man rush. Greene, a senior, had one of the worst games of his career in a game Georgia was supposed to win by two touchdowns.

On offense Tennessee was able to run the ball right at the Dawgs' vaunted defensive line; UT neutralized All-America defensive end David Pollack by double-teaming him and running at times right at him. Playing two true freshman quarterbacks, the Vols were able to make just enough big plays to build a lead and withstand a late Georgia rally.

Much like Bobby Johnson did last week, Coach Mark Richt accepted much of the blame for the loss. Richt said he should have coordinated and communicated the game plan better, and should have run the ball more (once Tennessee took the lead, Georgia seemed to abandon its running game in favor of the pass).

In most corners Georgia (ranked No. 12 by AP, No. 8 by the coaches) is favored to win this week by 23 or so points, based on both teams' records to date. Actually, the Bulldogs in most years would be favored by a lot more. What can Vanderbilt do to neutralize Georgia's talent advantage and home-field advantage?

If the Bulldogs have a weakness right now, it's in the offensive line. Two starters, guard Nick Jones and tackle Dennis Roland, will miss the game with injuries. Remember last year's game at Dudley Field, in which Vanderbilt led 2-0 at halftime? Vandy's defensive scheme was able to exploit Georgia's weaknesses up front with a variety of creative blitzes, and it worked-- at least for a half. The defense produced six sacks, one of which happened in the end zone for a safety, and held Georgia to -8 yards rushing in the first half.

Tennessee's defense held Georgia's offense to a mere 265 yards last week, and much of that came late in the game when the Dawgs were desperately trying to come from behind.

The Commodores are well acquainted with David Greene (6-3, 227, No. 14). As a freshman he threw for 305 yards against Vandy, and 319 more as a sophomore (on 20-of-23 passing). Naturally, with Greene struggling last week, some Georgia fans are calling for mobile backup D.J. Shockley (6-1, 208, No. 3) to play more, and Shockley should get a few series vs. Vandy. But Greene is not likely to struggle two weeks in a row, and is unquestionably capable of having a field day at Vanderbilt's expense, as he proved two years ago. Receivers Fred Gibson and Reggie Brown are both NFL-quality playmakers.

More likely, however, Mark Richt's game plan will call for Georgia to keep the ball on the ground, run the ball right at Vanderbilt and see if the Dores can stop it. In freshman tailback Danny Ware (6-1, 212, No. 28) Georgia possesses what some people think is its best running back since Herschel Walker. That may be a stretch, but Ware is capable of a 100-yard day, and if Vandy's D proves unable to stop him, it will be a long, inglorious afternoon at Sanford Stadium.

The defensive big name for Georgia is Pollack (6-3, 276, No. 47), an undersized end whose motor absolutely never stops running; Commodore fans may remember him for the punt he blocked in Athens two years ago. Much like Vandy's Jovan Haye, however, Pollack is having a quiet year, frequently drawing double-teams from the opposition. The real player to watch on the Dawg defense is free safety Thomas Davis (6-1, 220, No. 10, right, photo by AP), a junior who's made mouths drop open this season with his bone-jarring hits. Odell Thurman (6-1, 235, No. 33) is another All-SEC candidate at middle linebacker.

Under Brian VanGorder the Bulldogs play an aggressive man-to-man coverage scheme and depend on their corners to lock up receivers. Tennessee made Georgia pay for its over-aggressiveness several times last week by hitting long passes off play action, and Vanderbilt may need to employ the same strategy. Jay Cutler completed three long passes over the top of the Rutgers defense (though the last one was nullified by a penalty), and Ted Cain will probably try to do the same this week to keep Georgia's safeties honest.

Will Vanderbilt's option work against this Georgia defense? The bad news for Vandy is that the Bulldogs have already faced and defeated one team that runs the option very well (Georgia Southern). But the good news is that GSU was able to roll up a whopping 294 yards rushing on Georgia and score 28 points.

A big concern this week is protecting Cutler from one of the SEC's best and most physical defensive fronts. The Vandy offensive line gave up four sacks to Rutgers last week. Good news: the Commodores are as healthy as they've been in a while; but Nigel Seaman is still learning the ropes at right guard.

Georgia field goal kicker Andy Bailey is 7-of-10 on the year, but missed a 29-yarder against Tennessee last week. While we're on the subject, Vandy's Patrick Johnson is 5-of-6 on field goals, and a perfect 13-of-13 on PAT's.

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Two years ago one of Vanderbilt's team buses had a head-on collision with a truck as the team was en route to Athens. The accident didn't impede the game, however; Georgia pummeled a shaken Commodore team 48-17 en route to an SEC Championship.

Pardon my pessimism, but this game also looks like a bad accident waiting to happen. Georgia is a legitimate Top Ten team, an angered team, and a team that still has a lot left to play for. But again, this game may mostly be about which team can best shake out the cobwebs from the previous week and get down to the serious business of winning a football game. The guess here is that Georgia will take the Dores back behind the Dawg-house for a good whipping-- but Vanderbilt fans who made this trip in 1994 know that there is always, always hope.

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Photos by Associated Press. Brent Wiseman covers Vanderbilt football for VandyMania.com.


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