January 2, 2008

Georgia too much for Hawaii in Sugar Bowl

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NEW ORLEANS The chants of "S-E-C" began as soon as Colt Brennan committed the first of his five turnovers. The chorus of "Over-rated" started when Georgia converted the interception into a touchdown that continued the Bulldogs' point-a-minute pace.

Eight minutes remained in the second quarter of the Sugar Bowl, but the clock already had struck midnight on Hawaii's Cinderella season.

Georgia sprinted to a 24-3 lead in the game's first 22 minutes Tuesday, and spent the rest of the night harassing Brennan in a 41-10 demolition of Hawaii that assured no team would finish this wackiest of college football seasons with an undefeated record.

"I'm just really disappointed that we didn't show up and at least play our type of football," Brennan said. "It's disappointing because we're such a better football team than we showed tonight."

The one-sided loss represented a humbling finish to Brennan's brilliant career.

Brennan has thrown 131 touchdown passes over the last three years to break former Brigham Young star Ty Detmer's NCAA career record, but he couldn't get the nation's highest-scoring offense into the end zone once Tuesday.

The Heisman Trophy finalist threw three interceptions, lost two fumbles and was sacked eight times while going 22 of 38 for 169 yards. Aside from a cameo appearance against Nevada this season in which he threw the ball only twice, this represented Brennan's lowest single-game total in passing yardage and marked the only time he's failed to deliver a touchdown pass in 36 career starts.

"I know he'd never seen that kind of rush," said Georgia defensive end Marcus Howard, who was named the game's most outstanding player after recording three sacks and forcing two fumbles. "We watched the film and knew he'd never seen a defense like the Georgia Bulldogs."

This game also shattered Hawaii's hopes of becoming this year's version of Boise State, which capped an undefeated 2006 season by stunning Oklahoma in a Fiesta Bowl overtime thriller. But what made that season so special is that those types of teams don't come around very often.

Usually when a top team from a BCS conference faces an upstart from a less established league, the BCS program is going to win. Even in a year as crazy as this one.

And as fun as Hawaii's run-and-shoot offense is to watch, this team simply lacked many of the qualities that set Boise State apart last year.

Last year's Boise State team could shut down an opponent's running attack. Hawaii couldn't.

Boise State already had proved it could beat a solid team from a BCS conference (a 42-14 triumph over an Oregon State team that went 10-4 last year). Hawaii hadn't.

That Boise State team gained a quick measure of confidence in its bowl game by racing to a commanding early lead. Hawaii didn't.

"I heard them talking about Hawaii and us, about our game, and they'd say Boise did this and Boise did that," Georgia linebacker Rennie Curran said. "Hawaii's not Boise. We came out here and set that tone from the get-go that we're not going to let any critic tell us, 'Boise did this,' or 'Hawaii will do that.' ''

Georgia 41, Hawaii 10
Offensive player of the game
Georgia RB Knowshon Moreno didn't start the game after spraining his left ankle in the regular-season finale against Georgia Tech, but the freshman phenom sure looked healthy while scoring on two of his first three carries. Moreno rushed for 61 yards on only nine attempts. He scored Georgia's first two touchdowns from 17 and 11 yards.
Defensive player of the game
Georgia DE Marcus Howard closed his career in style by collecting three sacks and forcing fumbles on two of them. He recovered one of the fumbles for a third-quarter touchdown that extended Georgia's lead to 38-3.
Turning point
The turning point to this one came early. Malcolm Lane returned the opening kickoff to Hawaii's 45-yard line, which gave the Warriors an excellent chance to take an early lead. Instead of capitalizing on the outstanding field position, Hawaii committed two penalties before it ever snapped the ball and ended up going three-and-out. Georgia went on to score a touchdown on its opening drive and led the rest of the way.
Bad move
Georgia's absence from the national title game wasn't the only thing bothering Howard in the days leading up to the Sugar Bowl. He also wondered why Hawaii's players weren't talking to the Bulldogs during the pre-bowl team gatherings. "I don't know why they had an attitude," Howard said. "We just wanted to meet and talk to them, but I guess they had a chip on their shoulder. But we had a swagger and a chip on our shoulder, too." Howard spent the entire evening taking out his frustrations on an overmatched Hawaii offensive line.
Where's the weakness?
Georgia's defense didn't show many deficiencies while holding the nation's highest scoring offense to 10 points, but at least one Hawaii player believes he knows how the Bulldogs can be attacked. "We knew coming in, from studying them on film, what the vulnerable points of their defense were," said Hawaii wide receiver Jason Rivers, who caught 10 passes for 105 yards. "We knew how to expose them. We just couldn't get it started. I don't know why, but we couldn't get it started."
What this means for Georgia
The Bulldogs' overwhelming victory guarantees them a spot a season-ending finish in the top five. Georgia could be as high as second in the final polls. Georgia also put itself in position for a top-five spot in next year's preseason rankings.
What this means for Hawaii
The Warriors now begin the post-Brennan era, though they won't be entirely inexperienced at the quarterback position. Tyler Graunke filled in for an injured Brennan in a regular-season victory over Nevada. Graunke played most of the fourth quarter Tuesday and threw a 16-yard pass to Ryan Grice-Mullen for Hawaii's lone touchdown.
Etc.
Georgia kicker Brandon Coutu's 52-yard field goal in the second quarter was the longest ever in a BCS game since the Bowl Championship Series was introduced in the 1998 season. Georgia's 41 points represented a team bowl record. The Bulldogs beat Texas Christian 40-26 in the 1942 Orange Bowl, which marked their first bowl appearance in school history. Hawaii set Sugar Bowl records with 35 pass completions and 57 pass attempts. Hawaii set a dubious BCS record by throwing four interceptions three by Brennan and one by Graunke. Hawaii's six total turnovers also represented a BCS record. Hawaii was held to its lowest point total since a 69-3 loss to Boise State in 2004. Georgia's eight sacks represented a school record. Hawaii's minus-5 rushing yards were the fewest by a Georgia opponent since Kentucky had minus-50 in 1999. Georgia punt returner Mikey Henderson sustained a concussion in the first half and sat out the remainder of the game. Georgia's eight sacks set a school single-game record.
As it turned out, Hawaii didn't do much at all.

The Warriors turned the ball over six times, committed 11 penalties and didn't score a touchdown until backup quarterback Tyler Graunke threw a 16-yard pass to Ryan Grice-Mullen with 10:32 left in the game.

"We had to play as well as we could play," Hawaii coach June Jones said. "And our guys didn't get it done."

Hawaii (12-1) wasn't the only team that showed it might not have belonged in the Sugar Bowl. Georgia (11-2) played like a team that perhaps should have been playing here almost a week later in the national championship game.

While it's tough to make the case that a team that failed to reach its conference championship game deserves to play for the national title, Georgia certainly played like one of the nation's best teams while closing the season on a seven-game winning streak.

"I just feel we should have been No. 1," Howard said. "I feel we could have jumped Ohio State. We had the hottest team in the nation coming toward the end of the season."

Georgia simply had too much speed and strength for a Hawaii team that hadn't played anyone even remotely as good as the Bulldogs all year long.

And it certainly didn't help that Hawaii continually made the types of mistakes characteristic of a team unaccustomed to this kind of atmosphere.

Hawaii committed a delay-of-game penalty and a false start before the game's opening snap. The Warriors followed that up by interfering with Georgia punt returner Mikey Henderson, giving the Bulldogs favorable field position on their opening series.

Georgia would go on to score a total of 24 points on its first four drives by continually attacking Hawaii's suspect run defense.

The Warriors had allowed 190 rushing yards per game over the last four weeks of the regular season. Thomas Brown and Knowshon Moreno gained 85 yards in the first quarter alone Tuesday. They finished the night with a combined total of 134 yards and three touchdowns on only 26 carries.

But the real story of the game was a Georgia defense that held the nation's highest scoring offense to 10 points.

The hoopla surrounding Moreno's outstanding freshman campaign overshadowed the late-season surge of Georgia's pass rush, which entered the Sugar Bowl with 22 sacks in its last four games. Georgia's ability to hound Brennan all night long Tuesday assured that the Bulldogs' front four won't go unnoticed any longer.

After Hawaii went three-and-out on its first series of the game, Brennan either was sacked or turned the ball over on each of the Warriors' next nine possessions. Brennan admitted the performance probably hurt his NFL Draft stock.

"I'm sure everyone's going to have a field day, saying that I'm just some system quarterback and that I'm a waste of time," Brennan said. "You know what, that's just fine with me. All I need is one team to believe in me."

Howard punctuated the Bulldogs' dominance midway through the third quarter with a play that symbolized the entire night. The senior defensive end blew past right tackle Keoni Steinhoff, sacked Brennan to force a fumble and pounced on the ball in the end zone to give Georgia a 31-3 advantage.

"When I saw (Steinhoff) on film, I thought I might have my way with him," Howard said. "I'm not trying to sound cocky, but ever since the Florida game, our whole defense has a bigger swagger about themselves. Just watching the film, our whole defense knew we'd have our way tonight."

Hawaii's woeful performance was particularly frustrating for Brennan and Co. because they had a golden opportunity to prove they belonged among the nation's elite teams. All year long, the Warriors had heard the charges that Brennan was nothing more than a system quarterback and that Hawaii went unbeaten only because it played one of the nation's weakest schedules.

The Sugar Bowl results certainly support those arguments, though both criticisms remain a bit unfair.

Sure, it's tough to defend Hawaii's schedule, which included only two teams (Boise State and Fresno State) that finished the season with winning records. It's easy to wonder why Hawaii had so much trouble beating the likes of Louisiana Tech and San Jose State, which both lost to the Warriors in overtime.

But nobody else in the nation found a way to end the regular season unscathed. And no other quarterback who played in Jones' run-and-shoot system ever operated it quite as well as Brennan, who rewrote the NCAA record books while helping Hawaii score at least 40 points in more than half his career starts.

"Everyone's been so quick to try and take away what we've been doing," Brennan said. "Everyone got what they wanted. We got blasted by Georgia. And I was zero touchdowns with three interceptions. That's life. I can sit here and mope about it, or I can go into the draft with a chip on my shoulder. It's not where you start. It's where you finish."

Hawaii better hope its 2008 season doesn't start the way its 2007 campaign finished. The Warriors begin the first game of the post-Brennan era by facing Florida in the Swamp.

The Warriors' offensive linemen might want to start working on their blocking assignments as soon as their plane lands in Hawaii.

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