With first place in the SEC East on the line, the Georgia Bulldogs will look to avoid a let-down of colossal proportions Saturday night when they tangle with Vanderbilt on ESPN2. Yes, you read those words in the same sentence: Vanderbilt and first place. The 4-2 Commodores may have lost their last two games, but they're 2-1 in the SEC. A win over the Dawgs would put them into a tie for first with Georgia, who rolls into Nashville with a 3-0 conference mark.
Georgia made a huge statement last week against Tennessee in its 27-14 win, gaining 405 yards of total offense while limiting the Vols' ground game to 48 yards. The Bulldogs are looking for that same intensity this week against the Commodores, a team the Bulldogs know is more than capable of beating them.
"It's going to be a great challenge for us," said Georgia head coach Mark Richt. "They're still very much in the SEC race and very much in the race for becoming bowl eligible. It's something they haven't done in a long time, and I know they're excited about that."
Vandy hasn't had much to cheer about on the gridiron in a long time. The school's last bowl game was in 1982. The late Lewis Grizzard, a Georgia alumnus, noted for his newspaper columns and stand-up comedy, once said Spain's military was so bad, "it couldn't beat Vanderbilt."
This season, fourth-year head coach Bobby Johnson has set the Commodores in a different direction, leading them to four wins to open the season. Vanderbilt needs two more wins to become bowl eligible, and an upset of Georgia would make that task a lot easier.
Vanderbilt senior quarterback Jay Cutler is the fuel behind the Commodores' offensive machine. A three-year team captain, he's widely regarded as the SEC's top signal-caller. Cutler leads the conference in passing average (248.6), total offense (275.0) and yardage (1,489). He also leads the SEC's active quarterbacks in total offense, passing yardage and rushing yardage.
"He might be the best quarterback we've played to-date. He's been in the offense so long and is very comfortable and knows what do," said Georgia cornerback DeMario Minter.
This season, Cutler's thrown for at least 245 yards five times. He's completed 137-of-238 passes for 1489 yards and has tossed seven touchdowns. He's also been picked off five times.
With numbers like these, it's no wonder Richt voted Cutler to the preseason All-SEC first team as a quarterback.
"I don't have any bones about saying that he was the one I voted for in the preseason," Richt said. "I thought he was the best quarterback in the league, and I don't have any reason to think any differently. He's a very good football player."
Cutler's far from invincible though. Last week, constant pressure by LSU forced Cutler into completed just 11-of-32 passes for 113 yards. The Tigers also coaxed Cuter into two interceptions.
"It's obvious that we had a little tough sledding on offense last weekend, and now we have to jump from the frying pan into the fire with another talented team in Georgia," Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson said earlier this week. "That's just what it means to be in the SEC. We'll get back to practice and see if we can improve and get ready for the Bulldogs."
The Dawgs, who have shut down passing attacks like Tennessee and Boise State this year and lead the SEC with a plus-nine turnover margin, will have to apply similar pressure. The Dawgs are also the No. 7 team in the country in terms of scoring defense, yielding 11.8 points game. Vandy meanwhile, is giving up 21.8 a game.
"People have changed their game plans against us. That's something that we'll have to get used to and we're going to have to think a little bit more about that," Johnson said. "We just didn't do a very good job of blocking. We also weren't getting open. If you're not open then there's no one to throw it to and you can't give protection forever. It all goes hand-in-hand."
Aside from putting heat on Cutler, Georgia's defensive secondary has to shut down the Commodores' top receiver, the 6-foot, 2-inch, 192-pound Erik Davis. He's been Cutler's go-to guy this year, catching at least six passes in five games. With 37 catches, he is second in the conference. Davis is also third in receiving yardage with 467.
"One thing about their tight end, Dustin Dunning and their receivers is that from what our defensive coaches say, they all catch the ball extremely well," Richt said. "They do not drop many balls, and that'll help you continue to move the chains."
Up front, Brian Stamper is Vanderbilt's top offensive lineman. In the season-opening win against Wake Forest, he didn't allow a sack. Against Ole Miss, the 6-foot, five inch 295-pounder didn't allow a sack.
From a defensive perspective, the Commodores have the unenviable chore of trying to slow down one of the SEC's top balanced offenses. Georgia leads the SEC in total offense, averaging 455.6 yards a game. The Dawgs are also second in rushing (198) and passing offense (257.6).
For tailbacks Danny Ware and Thomas Brown to keep up their per-carry averages of 5.3 yards and quarterback D.J. Shockley to continue his strong play, Vanderbilt strongside linebacker Moses Osemwegie will have to be neutralized.
A first-team All-SEC selection a year ago, Osemwegie recorded 11 tackles in last week's loss to LSU. He also racked up 11 tackles against Ole Miss and is the SEC's current leader in tackles among active players with 350.
Osemwegie leads the team in tackles for a loss with 5.5, and his two sacks tie him for the team lead with two defensive ends, Chris Hudson and Herdley Harrison.
Johnson isn't so sure neutralized Shockley will be an easy job. To date, Shockley's completed 74-of-124 passes for 1,166 yards. He's thrown for eight touchdowns and been picked off three times. On the ground, he's Georgia's third-leading rusher, picking up 202 yards on 32 carries.
"Obviously he brings a lot because he is so mobile, but he has also been throwing the ball great. He executes the position of quarterback very well," Johnson said. "They have the top running game, the top passing game and the top total offense in the league."
In the defensive secondary, strong safety Reshard Langford is licking his chops for a chance at picking off a Shockley pass. Langford has two of the Commodores' three interceptions.
"We've not really historically played well at Vanderbilt," Richt said. "Hopefully we can turn that around."
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BULLDOGS at VANDERBILT COMMODORES
6:15 p.m. CT * Nashville, Tenn. * Vanderbilt Stadium (39,773)
LIVE TELEVISION: ESPN2 (Sean McDonough, play-by-play; Mike Gottfried,
color analyst; Alex Flanigan, sideline reporter)
SIRIUS SATELLITE RADIO: Vanderbilt [Channel 127]
GEORGIA (5-0, 3-0 SEC)
Head Coach: Mark Richt (Miami, Fla., '82)
Overall/Yrs: 47-10 (.825) / 5th Season
UGA/Yrs: 47-10 (.825) / 5th Season
National Rankings: 5th - AP / 4th - USA Today / 4th - Harris
Formations: Offense - Pro-Style * Defense - 4-3 Multiple
QB D.J. Shockley (6-1, 206, Sr., College Park, Ga.)
Shockley, named to the 11-man AFCA National Good Works Team, owns a 5-0 career
record as a starter... Shockley ranks 1st in the SEC and 12th nationally in
Passing Efficiency at 155.1. ..As a first-year starting QB, Shockley is the
first Bulldog to lead his team to a 5-0 start since John Lastinger in 1982.
TE Leonard Pope (6-7, 250, Jr., Americus, Ga.)
Led the Bulldogs against #8 Tennessee with 4 receptions for 70 yards... For the
year, Pope ranks second on the team with 13 receptions for 199 yards and 1 TD.
..In 2004, Pope had 25 catches for 482 yards (19.3 avg.) and 6 TDs... In 2003,
Pope, a backup to eventual first round draft pick Ben Watson (New England
Patriots), appeared in 11 games with one catch, a 21-yarder against Middle
TB Thomas Brown (5-8, 177, So., Tucker, Ga.)
Georgia's rushing offense ranks second in the SEC (198.0/g) and are coming off a
big effort at #8 Tennessee where it tallied 198 yards led by sophomore Thomas
Brown (20 att., 94 yards, 1 TD)... Brown gained 73 of his yards carrying the
ball all nine times on the nine-play drive capped by an 18-yard scamper to make
DT Kedric Golston (6-4, 282, Sr., Tyrone, Ga.)
Named honorable mention All-SEC by the AP in 2004...Has 20 career starts,
including all 12 games in 2004....Started first career game in 2002, becoming
the first true freshman to start at nose tackle for the Bulldogs since
1994...Named third-team freshman All-America and Freshman All-SEC in
2002...Golston is tied for the team lead with 14 QB-Pressures including eight
against Miss. State.
VANDERBILT (4-2, 2-1 SEC)
Head Coach: Bobby Johnson (Clemson, '73)
Overall/Yrs: 70-67 (.511) / 12th Season
VU/Yrs: 10-31 (.244) / 4th Season
National Rankings: N/A
Formations: Offense - Two-Back "I" * Defense - 4-3
QB Jay Cutler (6-4, 225, Sr., Santa Claus, Ind.)
Cutler struggled for the first time this season versus LSU, completing just 11
of 32 passes for 113 yards and no touchdowns... He was constantly under pressure
by a Tiger defensive front that registered six sacks... Cutler has completed at
least 23 passes - and thrown for at least 245 yards - in five of six games this
year...Cutler leads the SEC in numerous offensive categories, including total
offense, passing yardage and pass completions. Cutler could reach virtually
every significant team mark for QBs.
WR Erik Davis (6-1, 190, Sr., Nashville, Tenn.)
The SEC's active leader in receptions (115) and receiving yards (1,615 yards),
Davis was limited to two catches and 22 receiving yards by a talented LSU
defense... Despite the low production versus LSU, Davis moved into the Commodore
all-time Top Ten in both receiving yards and receptions.
LB Moses Osemwegie (6-0, 228, Sr., Nashville, Tenn.)
Selected First Team All-SEC linebacker by the coaches and Associated Press last
year, Osemwegie played another outstanding game in defeat for the Commodores
against LSU, registering 11 total tackles, including nine primary stops, a
tackle for loss and fumble recovery.
SS Kelechi Ohanaja (6-1, 200, Sr., Arlington, Texas)
Returning two-year starter, drawing 24 career starts...Accounted for 64 total
tackles last season after reaching 99 tackle mark in 2003...Logged career-high
18 total tackles against South Carolina in 2004....Has five career double digit
tackle games and has earned team Defensive Player of the Week honors three
Record: UGA, 46-17-2 * Last: UGA, 33-3 (10/16/2004 at Athens)
Georgia owns a 46-17-2 edge in the series including 20-11-2 in Nashville...
It dates back to 1893 when Vanderbilt beat the Bulldogs 35-0 in
Nashville...Georgia will try to match the longest winning streak in the series
when it goes for its 11th straight. ..The Bulldogs have won 10 in a row since
Vanderbilt spoiled Georgia's 1994 Homecoming. The Bulldogs won 11 in a row in
the series from 1974-1984... A victory over the top-five Georgia Bulldogs would
give Vanderbilt its fifth overall win, the most since the 1996 squad finished
5-6...Remarkably, it would be the earliest date a Vanderbilt squad reached five
wins in team history... In 1915, Dan McGugin's powerful Commodores notched its
fifth win on Oct. 16. That squad went on to post a 9-1 season...Georgia has
captured the last ten games played between the schools, and 11 of the last 12.
Vanderbilt's last victory in the series came in 1994, a 43-30 victory in
Athens...The Commodores won eight of the first 10 games played between the
schools. Prior to 1958, the Commodores were 13-7-1 in the series; since,
Vanderbilt is just 4-39-1.