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October 15, 2008

Dawgs taking Vandy seriously

ATHENS, Ga. -- This used to be the laugher on the schedule, the game that was assigned to the win column before the season even began.

But No. 10 Georgia is hardly expecting a walkover when it hosts Vanderbilt on Saturday, and that sense of caution has nothing to do with the number in front of the Commodores' name.

Vandy upset the Bulldogs in 2006 with a last-second field goal -- between the hedges, no less -- and Georgia needed a crucial defensive stop and a late kick of its own to knock off the Commodores a year ago.

This time, the Commodores come in with a rare national ranking (No. 22) and looking to get over last week's ugly loss at Mississippi State, which cost them a chance at matching their best start in 80 years.

"Sometimes you watch a team and you can just see they believe," Georgia coach Mark Richt said Tuesday. "Vanderbilt believes. They've got a spirit about 'em not all teams have."

Even before the Commodores (5-1, 3-1 Southeastern Conference) turned things around this season, they already had shown they could go toe-to-toe with mighty Georgia.

Two years ago, Bryant Hahnfeldt kicked a 33-yard field goal with 2 seconds remaining for a 24-22 shocker, Vandy's first win in the series since 1994.

Defensive tackle T.J. Greenstone, a redshirt freshman from suburban Atlanta, remembers watching that game on television. He had already committed to the Commodores when they knocked off his home-state team.

"Hahnfeldt's kick for the win is the only thing I really remember," Greenstone said. "The next day I went and shoved it in my teachers' faces. I had some fun with that."

Last season, the Commodores were poised for another upset, even after squandering an early 10-point lead. They drove to the Georgia 18 late in the game, surely in range for another winning kick if not a touchdown. But linebacker Darryl Gamble jarred the ball loose from Cassen Jackson-Garrison, the Bulldogs recovered and quickly drove the other way for Brandon Coutu's field goal on the final play for a 20-17 victory.

That turned out to be a huge win for the Bulldogs, sparking a seven-game streak that carried them all the way to No. 2 in the final Associated Press poll.

"We may not have known it at the time, but that was one of those deals that was kind of a springboard for us for the rest of the year," said quarterback Matthew Stafford, who directed the winning drive.

Georgia, which came into this season ranked No. 1, finds itself playing catch-up in the national championship race after losing at home to Alabama. The Bulldogs (5-1, 2-1) can hardly afford another defeat, especially with games the next two weeks against No. 13 LSU and fifth-ranked Florida.

They can't afford to overlook Vanderbilt, either.

"They always play us tough," Stafford said. "They don't beat themselves -- you've got to go out and beat them. They don't turn the ball over. They don't beat themselves with penalties. You've got to play a sound game yourself to have a chance to beat them."

The Commodores have some lofty goals of their own. They are tied for first in the SEC East with Florida and poised for their first winning season in a quarter-century.

Coach Bobby Johnson has brought a sense of respectability to the SEC's only private school. This isn't the same program that lost to the Bulldogs 11 straight years by double-digit margins.

"People are looking at them differently," Georgia fullback Brannan Southerland said. "It used to be in years past, you would look at their schedule and there would be a couple of games where you could say, 'OK, we're definitely counting those as wins.' It's not that way anymore with Vanderbilt."

Amazingly, the Commodores have trailed in every game this year, but come back to win all but one of them. They rank last in the conference in total yards and 10th in yards allowed, but they have a plus-seven turnover ratio and are the least-penalized team in the SEC.

That could be an especially crucial category against Georgia, the nation's most penalized team with an average of nearly 11 flags for 85.5 yards. Vandy is averaging just 36 yards in penalties.

Richt is just as concerned about something that doesn't show up in the stats.

"This is that chemistry people talk about," he said, looking over the Commodores roster. "Coaches are always talking about things like 'I don't know how my team is going to react to adversity' and 'I don't know what kind leadership I have.' Those are things you can't define on paper. But it comes out in wins and losses."


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