October 25, 2008

Georgia storms past LSU, back into title chase

BATON ROUGE, La. — Few settings might have seemed more futile.

Facing LSU at Tiger Stadium, with both teams' fragile national championship hopes hanging in the balance, wouldn't appear most conducive for Georgia keeping alive its championship dreams. The stadium isn't called Death Valley for nothing.

Yet, the Bulldogs turned an elimination game into an elevation game Saturday afternoon and rolled over LSU 52-38 in a Southeastern Conference clash disguised as one from the Big 12.

On a near-perfect day, junior quarterback Matthew Stafford enjoyed one of the best performances of his career. Running back Knowshon Moreno might have resurfaced as a Heisman contender. A patchwork offensive line held up against LSU's pass rush. The Bulldogs' defense forced three turnovers, including two interceptions returned for touchdowns by linebacker Darryl Gamble. The special teams denied LSU speedster Trindon Holliday any big plays.

Heck, Uga even looked pretty.

In the end, Georgia was re-established as a legitimate championship contender by turning in its best effort of the season and beating the reigning national champions in every facet of the game.

"I think this was as complete a game as we've played," Stafford said. "The special teams did an unbelievable job against their returns. The defense played well. We were able to do some things on offense."

Did they ever.

Stafford was 17-of-26 for 249 yards and two touchdowns. He also ran for another score.

Moreno, whose Heisman campaign sputtered after he was limited to 34 rushing yards in a 41-30 loss to Alabama, ran for 163 yards and a 68-yard touchdown late in the third quarter that gave the Bulldogs a 38-17 lead and sucked the life out of the purple-and-gold crowd.

"I didn't hear anything but somebody running behind me," Moreno said.

A big factor in his big day – which featured two runs in excess of 60 yards – was that he ran behind a mix-and-match line that might have exceeded expectations. Plagued with injuries that had the Bulldogs down to their fourth starting left tackle and filled with freshmen and sophomores, the line allowed just one sack to an LSU rush that produced six in last week's victory over South Carolina.

"Let's applaud the offensive line," Georgia coach Mark Richt said. "I'm not going to sit here and say that they dominated the game because they probably didn't. But they fought like mad and gave Matthew enough time when needed and gave Knowshon room to run."

It's all coming together at a time when the Bulldogs need it most.

In the spring, when Georgia was first being touted as a national championship contender, even the most adamant advocates would pore over the schedule and lament a treacherous four-game stretch that required the Bulldogs to face LSU, Florida, Kentucky and Auburn – and all away from Athens.

That stretch doesn't look so daunting now. Kentucky has lost three of its past four and was overwhelmed by Florida 63-5 on Saturday. Auburn has lost four of five and is one of the nation's greatest disappointments.

But Florida, Georgia's archrival, looms next week, and the blowout of Kentucky shows the Gators are on top of their game. So, it was imperative for the Bulldogs to be on top of theirs.

The Bulldogs are seventh in the BCS standings and certainly will climb when the second set is released Sunday night. And if they win the rest of their regular-season games, they will go to Atlanta for the SEC title game and likely have a shot at redeeming their loss to Alabama.

"We can come off this victory with a lot of confidence," Moreno said. "But it's not going to get any easier next week. We've got to stay focused."

That's because their eyes can't go back to the big prize.

Proponents of a playoff could take the videotape of Saturday's game and use it as a visual aid for their argument. This game had the intensity and creativity of a playoff because … well, in some ways it was.

Although LSU won last season's title with two losses, that was an aberration. Typically, two losses equates to elimination in the race.

And while the SEC crown is a tremendous prize, elite teams aim higher. That's why the giant purple scoreboard and the gold banners waving from flag poles high above Death Valley's north end zone commemorate LSU's national championships of 1958, 2003 and 2007. Nothing inside the stadium lists the Tigers' conference championships.

LSU won't be adding to that list this season. But Georgia still has a shot.

"I really believe any win is a great win," Richt said. "You just need to win if you want to keep pace."

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.


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