The College Bowl Season is upon us, and Pylon University is bringing the breakdowns on offense, defense, and special teams, along with the sport’s traditions and great moments. In this edition, it’s the Belk Bowl preview.
WHAT: Belk Bowl
WHEN: Tuesday, December 30 – 6:30 p.m. EST (ESPN)
WHERE: Bank of America Stadium – Charlotte, NC
Two teams that at times showed flashes of dominance, but then fell flat in key losses to mediocre opponents, do battle in the Queen City.
Georgia logged several decisive wins against ranked teams this year: 45-21 over then-No. 16 Clemson, 34-0 at then-No. 23 Missouri, and 34-7 over then-No. 8 Auburn. The Bulldogs also suffered close losses to touted rivals, falling by three to South Carolina and by six in overtime to then-No. 16 Georgia Tech. However, that same UGA team failed to show up for the World’s Largest Cocktail Party in Jacksonville, as Florida hammered them 39-20, a loss that cost head coach Mark Richt and the Bulldogs the SEC East division title.
Louisville’s 2014 season marked the departure of Charlie Strong, who left after four seasons to take over at Texas, and the return of Bobby Petrino, who previously served as Cardinals head coach from 2003-06. Louisville played a far less challenging slate than the Bulldogs, but beat Miami (FL), Syracuse, and Boston College by an average margin of 19 points. The Cardinals also showed moxie with a three-point win against Notre Dame in South Bend. Like Georgia, they sustained a pair of narrow defeats at the hands of strong programs, losing 23-17 at Clemson and 42-31 to then top-ranked Florida State. And, like the Bulldogs, the Cards lost a game they should have won, dropping a 23-21 decision at Virginia.
When Georgia Has The Ball
One cannot help but wonder how the Bulldogs might have fared had ill fates not befallen Todd Gurley, who garnered Heisman buzz early in the season. That was before the redshirt junior running back sat out a four-game NCAA suspension for accepting payment after signing his name to memorabilia. Then, in his first game back, he suffered a season-ending ACL tear against Auburn. Despite playing just five full games (he and other starters were pulled early in a blowout of Troy), Gurley gained 911 yards with 12 touchdowns, and his 7.4-yard average per carry ranked 10th in the nation.
Those were some hard shoes to fill, but freshman Nick Chubb stepped into them in fine fashion. The 5’11”, 228-pounder piled up 1,281 yards (averaging 6.9 per carry to rank 14th in FBS) in Gurley’s absence. Against Auburn, he showed breakaway speed, cutting ability, and an innate resistance to gang tackles. Witness these five runs for four first downs and a TD:
Rankings can be deceiving, and Georgia placing 90th in FBS with 200 passing yards per game is a prime example. On a per-attempt basis, the Bulldogs rate 28th (8.1 yards). Accuracy and turnovers haven’t been an issue either, as senior quarterback Hutson Mason connected on 68% of his throws while tossing 20 touchdowns with just four interceptions. But the Dawgs have been so prolific running the ball that they simply don’t pass as often as they could — or, perhaps, should.
In this clip against Missouri, Mason displays the ability to make a quick and accurate throw across his body while ranging to the right from the pocket, picking up a first down:
Later in the same game, he lofts a perfectly placed throw to the right rear corner of the end zone, where Michael Bennett corrals it for the touchdown:
Chris Conley served as Mason’s primary target, snaring 32 receptions for 577 yards and seven TDs while averaging 18 yards per catch. Other key Bulldogs receivers include Bennett (35-381-4-10.9), Malcolm Mitchell (28-229-3-8.2), and Jeb Blazevich (16-256-2-16.0). Even Chubb got into the act, grabbing 18 passes for 213 yards (11.8 YPC) and a pair of TDs.
Louisville’s defense put up eye-popping numbers, allowing just 293 total yards per game (6th in FBS). Against the pass, the Cardinals rated 31st (yielding 200 YPG), but versus the run only Penn State and Alabama presented stiffer resistance to ground attacks than the 93.7 YPG allowed by Louisville. The unit features a deep secondary led by cornerback Charles Gaines and a strong defensive front anchored by beastly defensive end Lorenzo Mauldin.
Here against Virginia, Mauldin uses a big step to his left and a swim move over his opponent’s right shoulder to get inside the fullback, rushing the pocket for a big hit on Cavaliers QB Greyson Lambert:
Free safety Gerod Holliman’s 14 interceptions this season tied the NCAA all-time record. Two came against the Seminoles and 2013 Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston, including this gem in the second half:
Here’s another example of Holliman’s ball-hawking as he picks off Syracuse QB Terrel Hunt and then retains possession despite the wrestling and thrashing of Orange WR Ben Lewis:
When Louisville Has The Ball
That the Cardinals finished the regular season ranked in the Top 20 in both major polls is somewhat miraculous in light of their issues on offense. The team played its first seven games without stud wide receiver DeVante Parker as he recovered from a broken toe. Injuries also limited senior wide receiver Matt Milton, who caught just three passes on the season and missed the final six games. Senior running back Michael Dyer missed four games and saw limited action in six others because of various maladies. Starting quarterback Will Gardner missed two games with a left knee injury, then was lost for the year with a torn ACL in the same joint. His replacement, freshman Reggie Bonnafon, also suffered a knee injury that knocked him out of the regular season finale against Kentucky, bringing third-stringer Kyle Bolin into the mix.
The rampant instability and losses of talent on a team adjusting to a new coach and scheme resulted in inconsistent production, and the Cardinals ranked 72nd in FBS with 396 total yards per game. Their passing attack ranked 52nd (247 YPG) while the ground game lagged significantly at 86th (149 YPG).
With game day here, Petrino still has not revealed who will be the starting signal caller, but all signs point to Bolin. Bonnafon completed just 51.3% of his passes for 7.3 yards per attempt and five TDs while throwing three INTs. Coming off the bench against the Wildcats, Bolin responded by completing 21 of 31 (67.7%) for 381 yards (11 per attempt) and three TDs with one INT (a blown route by his receiver on a timing pattern). Bonnafon’s injury appears serious; meanwhile, Bolin’s presence seemed to provide a much needed spark that resonated with his teammates.
Here are all three scoring tosses against the Wildcats ‒ all to Parker ‒ the last of which shows a deft touch with the ball:
Despite playing less than half a season, Parker led Louisville in receiving yards by a significant margin, racking up 735 on 34 catches, averaging 21 yards per reception and snaring five for touchdowns. Sophomore James Quick finished second, with 34 catches for 509 yards and three TDs. Other targets for the Cardinals include WR Eli Rogers (40-444-3), tight end Gerald Christian (30-359-4), and WR Kai De La Cruz (25-294-2).
Running back Brandon Radcliff took the bulk of Louisville’s handoffs, but “bulk” is a relative term; the sophomore carried just 125 times for 648 yards, a respectable 5.2-yard average per rush. He proved especially effective in the red zone, scoring 11 TDs. On this play against Wake Forest, he stays on his feet and plows ahead (with plenty of help behind him from his offensive line) to pick up a key first down:
The Cardinals’ limited RB depth took another blow when Dyer was declared academically ineligible for today’s game. That leaves Dominique Brown (96 carries, 378 yards, 4 TDs) and L.J. Scott (27-199-2) as the next men up. Aside from Bonnafon (71-173-5), no other Louisville player rushed more than eight times this season. However, Georgia’s sub-par run defense might be just what the Cardinals need. The Bulldogs yielded 175.6 ground yards per game (76th in FBS).
Parker – and whoever ends up throwing in his direction – face a huge challenge against UGA’s strong pass rush and smothering secondary. The Dawgs ranked second nationally in fewest passing yards allowed per game (158.4). When aligned in a 3-4 scheme, their linebackers are keyed by a trio of experienced studs in Ramik Wilson, Jordan Jenkins, and Amarlo Herrera, with sophomore Leonard Floyd and 6’6” freshman Lorenzo Carter also seeing plenty of action. Those five combined to make 39.5 tackles for losses. Senior Ray Drew presents a menacing threat on the defensive front.
Georgia’s coverage unit, while not as seasoned as the LBs, brings similar talent. Senior Damian Swann draws the primary single-coverage assignments alongside freshman Aaron Davis, with another freshman, Malkom Parrish, on the field in nickel packages. Freshman Dominick Sanders and sophomore Quincy Mauger man the free and strong safety slots respectively, with senior Corey Moore also seeing significant action.
This game is a draft enthusiast’s dream, with a plethora of talent on both sides. For Georgia, Wilson and Jenkins both project as early-round selections, with Swann, Drew, and center David Andrews pegged for later rounds. Mason, Conley, Bennett, Moore, and Herrera all rank among CBS Sportsline’s top 500 prospects for the 2015 NFL Draft. Gurley, a possible first-rounder before his injury, could still go in one of the early rounds.
For Louisville, Parker ranks behind only Alabama’s Amari Cooper among 2015 wide receiver prospects, projecting as a near-certain first-rounder. Holliman and Mauldin may expect to hear their names called soon after. Gaines and left guard John Miller are also early-round prospects, while Dominique Brown, Dyer, Christian, center Jake Smith, and left tackle Jamon Brown are all late-round candidates. Milton, Rogers, and cornerbacks Terell Floyd and Andrew Johnson also have the eyes of pro scouts.
Everything would have to go right for Louisville and wrong for Georgia to prevent a Bulldogs win. Expect a concerted effort on blanketing Parker with non-stop pocket pressure to prevent any Cardinals offensive momentum. Even without Gurley, the Dawgs should put enough points on the board to pull away.
Georgia 38, Louisville 17
All video and images courtesy ESPN, @SECQBHouse and ACC Digital Network.
Follow Mark on Twitter @mabrowndog.