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November 14, 2007

Young Dawgs coming of age during hot streak

ATHENS, Ga. Anyone who believes experience always trumps pure talent hasn't paid much attention to Georgia.

The Bulldogs have matured into one of the nation's hottest teams while starting three freshman offensive linemen, a freshman tailback and a sophomore quarterback.

Georgia may not win the Southeastern Conference title this year Tennessee still controls its destiny in the Eastern Division race but the Bulldogs are playing as if they're ready to make a legitimate run at the 2008 national championship.

"We know we're young, but when that clock strikes, there's no classification,'' redshirt freshman guard Chris Davis said. "It's whoever wants it more. Right now, we want it a little more."

Davis was speaking about the linemen, but he may as well have been referring to Georgia's entire offense, which has sparked the Bulldogs (8-2) to a four-game winning streak. Georgia has scored 40 points in three consecutive games for the first time since 1942 while relying on several highly touted prospects who have lived up to their billing.

Matthew Stafford signed with Georgia as the nation's top-ranked quarterback prospect in the 2006 recruiting class. Stafford threw 13 interceptions during an inconsistent freshman season, but he has thrown seven touchdown passes in the Bulldogs' past three games.

Trinton Sturdivant enrolled at Georgia in January as a four-star prospect. Sturdivant opened the season as the Bulldogs' starting left tackle on a line that also includes Davis at left guard and true freshman Clint Boling at right guard.

Knowshon Moreno led Middletown South (N.J.) High to three consecutive state titles and graduated as the second-leading rusher and leading career scorer in New Jersey high school history. Moreno, a redshirt freshman, has rushed for 642 yards and eight touchdowns during the Bulldogs' four-game winning streak.

Georgia's resurgence has coincided with Moreno's emergence. The Bulldogs have averaged 37.8 points per game in Moreno's first four starts including 43.7 points in each of their past three contests after averaging 29.5 points in the six games beforehand.

These Dawgs are just pups
The composition of Georgia's starting lineup on offense illustrates why the Bulldogs have reason for future optimism. Georgia's offensive starting lineup in its 45-20 victory over Auburn last week featured more freshmen than seniors.
TRUE FRESHMEN
LT Trinton Sturdivant
RG Clint Boling
REDSHIRT FRESHMEN
LG Chris Davis
TB Knowshon Moreno
SOPHOMORES
QB Matthew Stafford
"He's been a big part of our momentum swing," Georgia coach Mark Richt said. "He's a high-energy guy. Him playing with that kind of energy, I think, has rubbed off on a lot of guys. He does make people miss. He does run hard. He's just got it.

"I think he's helped raise the level of play for everybody."

Moreno has established himself as the best freshman running back to roam between the hedges since Herschel Walker led Georgia to the 1980 national title by rushing for 1,616 yards, which set an NCAA freshman record and an SEC overall single-season record at the time.

Nobody's saying Moreno is as good as Walker. The comparison borders on heresy. But he just might be the heir apparent to Arkansas star Darren McFadden as the SEC's elite running back once McFadden moves on to the NFL. Moreno rushed for 101 yards and two touchdowns last week against an Auburn defense that had limited McFadden to 43 yards on 17 carries a month earlier.

"They played really hard to the end," Moreno said afterward. "It wasn't easy. It may have looked that way, but it wasn't."

Moreno has a way of making things look easy. He was supposed to split carries this year with Thomas Brown and Kregg Lumpkin, but injuries forced him into an expanded role ahead of schedule.

Brown missed 3 games after breaking his collarbone, though he returned to action in the victory over Auburn. Lumpkin had arthroscopic surgery on his left knee in mid-October and will miss at least the rest of the regular season.

Moreno has taken full advantage of the extra playing time.

In the Bulldogs' first game without Brown or Lumpkin, Moreno rushed for 157 yards and two touchdowns as Georgia rallied from a 10-point deficit in a 20-17 victory over Vanderbilt.

Moreno then won the hearts of Bulldog fans forever by running for 188 yards and three touchdowns in a 42-30 triumph over Florida, which marked only the third time in 18 seasons that Georgia had beaten the Gators.

FRESHMAN PHENOMS
Georgia's Knowshon Moreno leads all freshmen in total rushing yards, and ranks second in rushing yards per game because Pittsburgh's LeSean McCoy has played in one less game. Here's a look at the top 10 freshman rushers, ranked by their per-game averages.
Player Att.YdsTDsAvg.
LeSean McCoy, Pittsburgh 1981,06511118.3
Knowshon Moreno, Georgia 2001,10411110.4
Deonte' Jackson, Idaho 1981,0166101.6
Harvey Unga, BYU 158799788.8
Ryan Mathews, Fresno State 1207511283.4
Jake Locker, Washington 1438071080.7
Terry Grant, Alabama 159795779.5
Nicolas Grigsby, Arizona 132629278.6
Josh Adams, Wake Forest 152692776.9
DeMarco Murray, Oklahoma 1086701367.0
Moreno followed that up by rushing for 196 yards and three touchdowns in a 44-34 victory over Troy.

"He's the fuel that keeps that car called Georgia going," Auburn defensive end Quentin Groves had said before his team's loss to the Bulldogs. "If you eliminate him, you eliminate 80 percent of their offense."

Not necessarily. Moreno clearly is Georgia's most dangerous player, but the Bulldogs have plenty of other weapons. Long passes have devastated Georgia foes as much as long runs.

Stafford has 13 completions of at least 20 yards in his past three games. He has established a rhythm with deep threats Sean Bailey and Mohamed Massaquoi. Stafford's eight touchdown passes during Georgia's winning streak have covered an average distance of 35.4 yards.

"We've just made some big plays," Richt said. "We're throwing some deep balls more than anything. If you take away the deep balls, we'd have a lot less offense. That's strictly by numbers. Also, we would not have loosened up defenses enough to run the ball as well as we have. Being able to go deep has opened up a lot of things for us."

Stafford has been able to make those throws because Georgia's freshman linemen have given him time to look downfield. Georgia's inexperienced line shaped up as a major weakness at the start of the season, but only 14 teams in the nation have allowed fewer sacks than the Bulldogs.

Georgia's line also is opening up plenty of running room for Moreno and Co. The Bulldogs gained less than 4 yards per carry in three of their first six games, but they've averaged 4.8 yards per rush ever since.

While Moreno deserves much of the credit for the improvement in Georgia's rushing attack, the linemen also created enough holes to allow Brown to rush for 81 yards on 14 attempts last week.

"We still have a long way to go," senior center Fernando Velasco said, "but I like the direction we're moving in."

The line's performance against Auburn reflected its progress over the course of the season. Richt criticized the linemen after Georgia gained just 45 yards on 18 carries in the first half. They responded well enough to help the Bulldogs rush for 135 yards on 25 attempts in the final two quarters.

"We got called out by our coach, basically," Davis said. "He sat there and called us sissies. We were getting manhandled there for a while at the beginning of the second half. We came out and answered the call that Coach Richt put on us.

"The numbers are still deceiving. We had pretty good rushing yards, but we still didn't play to our capability."

That's the scary thing about this Georgia team. As good as these underclassmen are, they have plenty of room for improvement.

Their youthful enthusiasm has been obvious all season, whether they're celebrating a touchdown against Florida or dancing on the sideline against Auburn. Now their unlimited talent also is becoming more evident.

Moreno may be the best player in the bunch, but he certainly isn't the only player who should give Georgia foes reason to worry for the next year or two. Georgia's ability to shift into another gear was apparent last week, when the Bulldogs fell behind Auburn in the third quarter before scoring the game's final 28 points.

"Once we scored and went up on them, myself and everybody on our team thought we had them and would win," Groves said after the game. "But they responded and kept going to Sean Bailey deep, and we couldn't stop it.

"They were on, making really big plays. Teams better watch out for them."

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.



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