November 29, 2008

Battle of the Backs

ATLANTA -- Knowshon Moreno and Jonathan Dwyer both had to wait their turn.

Moreno didn't even get on the field his first season at Georgia, a move coach Mark Richt is probably kicking himself about now. Dwyer spent his freshman year backing up Tashard Choice, one of the most prolific running backs in Georgia Tech history.

Once they got in the lineup, Moreno and Dwyer ran like they were making up for lost time. They'll certainly be at the center of attention Saturday, when No. 18 Georgia Tech travels to Athens to face 13th-ranked Georgia.

"This is going to be a big altercation," Dwyer said. "He's a good back, but I'm going to try to do what I can to have the upper hand."

While Moreno and Dwyer will never be on the field at the same time, they'll inevitably be compared before, during and afterward.

Moreno is the top rusher in the Southeastern Conference (1,244 yards) and, with this one plus a bowl game remaining, he's got a chance at putting up the greatest season in Georgia history by someone not named Herschel Walker. Working out of Georgia Tech's triple-option offense, Dwyer leads the Atlantic Coast Conference in rushing yards (1,184) and still has an outside shot at the best year in school history, especially if the Yellow Jackets claim a spot in the league championship game.

Imagine them both in the same backfield. Georgia made a strong recruiting pitch for Dwyer, who played his high school football in suburban Atlanta, but he picked the Yellow Jackets.

"Oh yeah, we tried to get him," Richt said. "He's a good one."

The Bulldogs (9-2) have no complaints about the runner they ended up with. Moreno, who grew up in New Jersey, headed south to become one of college football's most dynamic players. He rarely goes down on the first hit and has put together his own highlight reel this season, from hurdling a Central Michigan defender to soaring through the air to score a touchdown at Arizona State.

As if his running skills weren't enough to keep defensive coordinators up at night, Moreno is Georgia's third-leading receiver with 23 catches for 255 yards.

"Certainly off the tape, he's the best running back we've played," Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson said. "If you watch all their games, you could probably count on one hard the number of times the first guy gets him down. He's very valuable in that he's good pass receiver, too. He's a tough matchup for you coming out of the backfield."

When Moreno arrived on campus, the Bulldogs were loaded in the backfield. He showed glimpses of his potential in practice but Richt decided to redshirt the freshman, figuring there was no need to use up a year of eligibility on a few meaningless carries.

In hindsight, that move could limit Moreno's college career to only two seasons.

Anyone who's been in school for three years is eligible to enter the NFL draft, and Moreno would appear to have few individual goals remaining at Georgia. He put up 1,334 yards rushing as a redshirt freshman and has set himself up for even better numbers as a sophomore, putting him within range of Garrison Hearst's 1,594 yards in 1992 for the fourth-best rushing season in school history. Walker, the 1982 Heisman Trophy winner, remains in a class by himself with three straight years of more than 1,600 yards.

Moreno said his only goal is sending out the seniors with a win in their final home game.

"That's what I've dedicated my whole season to," he said. "From high school, I know how it feels to be a senior. You want to go out with a great season."

And could this be his last game at Sanford Stadium, too?

"I'm definitely not thinking about that," Moreno said. "It's not the time to do that right now. For this one, I'm thinking about the seniors."

Dwyer spent his freshman year backing up Choice, getting on the field enough to rush for 436 yards and nine touchdowns. But the Yellow Jackets fired coach Chan Gailey after a disappointing season and turned to Johnson, who brought along his unique, run-oriented offense that's a throwback to the era when offenses such as the wishbone and veer ruled college football.

While Dwyer knew he would have a chance to pile up big yards, he also was a bit wary of playing the "B" back position - a spot that often requires the runner to take a hit from the defense even when he's not carrying the ball in the triple-option.

Johnson won him over.

"I think Jon saw it as a great opportunity," the coach said. "He'd seen the numbers that position put up on other teams, and rather than dwell on all the negatives people were saying about this and that, he said, 'Hmmm, this might be pretty good.'"

It was. The 6-foot, 228-pound Dwyer has eight 100-yard games and a streak of three in a row, even though he only played the first half against Miami a week ago. He left after twisting a knee, but insists he'll be 100 percent for the Bulldogs.

"I'm a tougher guy now," he said. "I don't mind the hitting. It's just another thing I have to deal with. It's a challenge I face each and every week, and I'm willing to take the challenge. I'm willing to do whatever I can for this team."

He'll gladly let Moreno have all the glory Saturday - as long as Georgia Tech is ahead at the end. The Yellow Jackets haven't beaten Georgia since 2000, a streak of seven straight losses that's one away from the longest skid by either team in the series.

Asked if he's eager to have more yards than Moreno, Dwyer said, "It's not about that. It's about getting the win, trying to switch the winning streak around and have a winning streak here at Georgia Tech."



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