ATHENS, Ga. – After clinching the SEC Eastern Division title on Saturday evening with a 38-0 route of the Auburn Tigers on the road, the Georgia Bulldogs (9-1, 7-1 SEC) now turn their focus out of conference for two weeks with a pair of in-state opponents. The Dawgs host Georgia Southern this Saturday at 1:30 p.m. in Sanford Stadium and will close out the regular season at home on Nov. 24 against ACC-foe Georgia Tech.
Following the matchups with Georgia Southern and Georgia Tech, the Bulldogs will then travel to the SEC Championship game on Dec. 1 in Atlanta for the fifth time in school history, including the second in a row. Georgia owns a 2-2 record all-time in these games, winning the title in 2002 and 2005.
As the regular season winds down and the postseason draws near, the Dawgs know that they must focus on each game one week at a time without looking too far ahead.
“We know we’re playing in Atlanta and that’s settled right now, but we know there’s a lot of work in the meantime, which is the job of getting better on a daily basis,” said head coach Mark Richt on Sunday evening. “Every time you practice, you’re going to get better or worse and we want to try to get better. We know that we’ve got some work to do as far as playing Georgia Southern this week, so that’s really where we have to be thinking and keeping our minds because if you don’t do that, all of that other stuff doesn’t mean much.”
Richt touched upon the challenges that Georgia Southern will present with their run-heavy offense, and he noted that the defensive preparations taking place this week will be unlike any other during the season thus far.
“We’re going to play defense so completely different than how we’ve been playing all year long,” Richt said. “Everything changes. The alignments change, the assignments change, the type of block you’re dealing with changes, and it’s very, very difficult to simulate in practice. You just can’t do it. You just have to be disciplined in what your assignments are. This offense tends to have a lot of fumbles. A lot of balls get on the ground when you run that type of system. Sometimes the only way you can stop one of their possessions is with a turnover.”
Richt also stressed the challenges of facing an opponent that is used to winning, like Georgia Southern.
“I look at Georgia Southern as a winning program,” said Richt. “I really don’t look at what league they’re in. I know that a team that is used to winning is much more difficult to beat than a team that’s not used to winning. It’s like when Appalachian State goes to Michigan and beats them. When you play teams that are used to winning, they’re the toughest ones to beat.”
Although the Bulldogs have been saddled with an abundance of injuries lately, most recently to Marlon Brown and Chris Burnette, a number of players have stepped up in their absences. Sophomore flanker Chris Conley made his first career start on Saturday against Auburn, finishing with four receptions for 32 yards and a touchdown.
“Chris started as our slot receiver, and of course he had the first touchdown of the game,” Richt said. “He had four catches and was blocking well. He’s a competitor. He likes football, and he wants to win so he’s willing to do whatever it takes. He’s not too concerned about how many times he catches the ball. They all want to catch it, and they all want opportunities, but he loves this team and wants to win. He stepped in real nicely. We had confidence in him going in, but we even have more confidence now that he’s ready to make plays. That was a tremendous catch for that first touchdown that easily could have been dropped. He had to turn almost completely around to catch it on the move, so it was a great start for the night.”
Richt also paid compliments to the offensive line, as sophomore Mark Beard made his first career start at left tackle in place of the injured Burnette.
“I thought our line blocked extremely well,” Richt said. “There were a few times here and there when they didn’t get the job done quite right, but for the most part we ran the ball well and we blocked very well in the running game. It started with (Aaron) Murray getting in the right plays but the guys executed well, and the pass protection overall was good. Murray had time to throw the ball most of the time. There were a few times where he got pressured or hit early on in the first half, which we didn’t like, but they got it squared away in the second half.”
Richt added that Burnette almost made the trip to Auburn with the team, but as game day neared, Burnette was not quite ready from a physical standpoint.
“We don’t know about Chris yet,” Richt said. “He has been making progress. We almost took him on the trip to come as an emergency guy. As a matter of fact, earlier in the week, we thought he was going on the trip and I might have even mentioned that he’d be on the trip. Then as it got closer, he just wasn’t able to play even in an emergency situation so we let him stay back and get the rehab and bring someone else that might could be healthy enough to play in case we needed to do it because of an injury.”
Richt applauded the consistency of kicker Marshall Morgan in recent games, noting that his kicks seem to be higher as the freshman settles in to college football more and more each week.
“I think he’s just getting more comfortable and doing what comes natural to him, or at least what he’s been doing in high school,” Richt said. “I think the same thing is starting to happen with Collin (Barber). As you can tell, Collin is really starting to punt the ball extremely well. He’s had some good punts knocking it inside the 10 and the 5. I think those guys are just beginning to feel a little more confortable, and it’s good because it’s not easy to be a true freshman and get thrown into those roles.”