November 26, 2010

Dawgs still have lot at stake

It's been often said by the most diehard Georgia fans that the Bulldogs could be 0-11 and still count the season a success with a victory over Georgia Tech.

In a way, that just about sums up Saturday's 103rd meeting between the two in-state rivals, a game which has both teams wrapping up what can only be described as disappointing campaigns.

At 6-5, the Yellow Jackets have already qualified for a bowl, while Georgia (5-6) needs a victory in order to earn a post-season trip.

But while a bowl trip - any bowl trip - certainly is among the Bulldogs' list of priorities, losing to Georgia Tech for the second time in three years isn't an option players like senior Kris Durham care to consider.

Although Durham didn't play in 2008 while nursing a broken hand, the sight of Yellow Jacket players ripping off pieces of the famed Sanford Stadium hedge still haunts him today.

"That's still a bad memory," Durham said.

Fellow senior Clint Boling had to agree.

"This is one game you never want to lose because it stays with you the entire next year," Boling said. "And this is my last chance."

The Bulldogs were able to extract a measure of revenge on the Yellow Jackets last year, topping the eventual ACC champions 30-24 in Atlanta. But that was then.

This year, the Bulldogs are trying to avoid their first losing season since 1996, the last time Georgia, obviously, did not qualify for a post-season bowl.

Of course, there's the not-so-small matter of state pride that's on the line.

"We haven't mentioned this much, and I should have mentioned it more, but there is also the Governor's Cup at stake. There is a trophy that travels to the team that wins the game and it gets to be displayed at your athletic complex year after year. It's also a very unique situation in that this game is not quite a bowl game, but it gets treated a little like a bowl game in that there are gifts that are being allowed to give out," head coach Mark Richt said. "Every senior of the winning team gets a trophy, and every senior who plays gets a watch to signify that they played in that game. Also, the head coach gets a trophy also with the names of all the seniors who played in the game. I really like those."

But this year's game means so much more than Richt winning a trophy to sit on the desk in his office at the Butts-Mehre Building.

For example, this week the Bulldogs practiced in full pads not once, not twice, but three times in preparation for the game. Even last week's news that Georgia will open the 2011 campaign against Boise State was brushed off by Richt, who preferred to limit any and all conversations to the Yellow Jackets.

"It just feels different. I didn't understand it my first year until we got out there, and it didn't go well for us. Then we had to spend a whole year of everybody talking about you and getting awards and stuff. I didn't understand how big a deal it really was until that first one, especially being on the losing end of it. It's huge," Richt said. "If you don't win this game, the next year is not fun. It wasn't fun for us in off-season training just hearing about it. We want to win this game, and we are going to do our best to win it. It's just as big as it's ever been, and there's a lot more on the line for us. They've already become bowl eligible, and we don't want to lose this game and we want to go to a bowl game. We are going to do everything we can to prevent them from beating us and keeping us out of a bowl game."

Although there's been no official word, a Bulldog victory is expected to land Georgia in one of three bowls - the Music City Bowl (Jan. 30), the Liberty Bowl (Jan. 31) or the Birmingham Bowl (Jan. 8).

Richt said he would have no preference.

"The experience of the trip, I've never been to a bad bowl. Every bowl you go to, the people are wonderful. They have really neat things to do. You get a chance to go compete in another college game. You get to practice along the way, which I don't know that the players are all that excited about that part of it, but as a coach you like to get more practice opportunities in. You tend to take some time to let the younger guys get a little bit more work. I don't do that maybe as much as other coaches do," Richt said. "My focus is usually to make sure we are preparing to win the game. I know graduation day, historically at Georgia you have a bunch of seniors taking off to graduate, and it's a day where we do some scrimmaging with the younger guys. That's important too. I think it's certainly nice to be able to say you have a certain streak of playing in a bowl game. That's important too."

Of course, Georgia Tech has other ideas.

Stopping Bulldog wide receiver .J. Green is the biggest concern of Yellow Jacket coach Paul Johnson, who will be without quarterback Joshua Nesbitt due to a broken arm.

"He (Green) is the best player that we have played against. He is a great athlete that can adjust to the ball, has great speed; he has all of the tools. He is just a great football player. Those guys don't come along all of the time," Johnson said. "We were fortunate that we had Demaryius Thomas play for us. A.J. Green is of the same mold, or more so. You are not going to play against guys like him every year. He is a gifted football player with a lot of ability."

No doubt Johnson hopes this is the last time he'll have to worry about Green.

Projected by ESPN's Mel Kiper to be a top-10 pick in April's NFL Draft, Green could very well be playing his final game in Sanford Stadium, although Green has yet to make an official decision on his future plans.

Bulldog quarterback Aaron Murray's has already made his plans for Saturday's game - he's going to play.

Murray suffered a bruised sternum and a bruised knee two weeks ago at Auburn, but has been practicing with the team all week and will start Saturday's contest against the Yellow Jackets, which kicks off at 7:45 (ESPN).

"Even if I had a broken leg, I'm going to play," Murray said. "We need this win."

Senior defensive end Demarcus Dobbs agreed.

"It's a forgettable season as you look at it, but it wouldn't be something to hang you head on if you did make it to a bowl game and you were able to jump start the season for next year with two back-to-back wins, if we make it to a bowl game and win," Dobbs said. "It's a way to salvage the season and a way to move forward."



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