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October 9, 2008

College Football Notebook

ATHENS, Ga. -- Mark Richt says he knows one way to get Georgia to play better than in its deflating loss to Alabama: Cut down on penalties.

The No. 10 Bulldogs rank last among the nation's 119 Bowl Subdivision teams with 53 penalties through five games, an average of 10.60 per game. No other Bowl Subdivision team is averaging as many as 10 penalties per game.

Big Games
Previews

Even before the season, Oct. 11 was circled on the calendars of many college football fans. Now that six weeks of football have been played, Saturday's schedule looks even better.

Three games matching six ranked teams, including four of the top five, will surely rock the national championship race, starting in Dallas at the Texas State Fair.

Oklahoma and Texas renew the Red River Rivalry, and once again the stakes are enormous. Both Big 12 South rivals are ranked in the top five. The loser not only will have its national title hopes take a hit, but just getting to the conference champion game becomes a tricky task.

Under Bob Stoops, Oklahoma is 6-3 against Texas and coach Mack Brown, but the Longhorns have won two of the last three.

The game could also produce a Heisman Trophy front-runner. Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford is second in the nation in passer rating, while Texas quarterback Colt McCoy has completed 79 percent of this throws and leads the team in rushing.

In the Southeastern Conference, the last two national champions meet in Florida's Swamp. The Gators, who won it all in 2006, have already lost a home game. That should make for one desperate group awaiting the arrival of defending champion LSU.

The Tigers beat the Gators and Heisman winner Tim Tebow last season, converting five fourth down opportunities and rallying to win 28-24.

While it was obvious OU-Texas and LSU-Florida were going to be big games, Oklahoma State-Missouri is an unlikely headliner.

The Cowboys have practically matched the high-scoring Tigers point for point. Oklahoma State is No. 3 in the country in scoring at 52.6 per game. Chase Daniel, another Heisman contender, and Missouri is second at 53.4.

The picks:

Thursday

Clemson (plus 2 1/2) at No. 21 Wake Forest

Week 7 is here and the ACC is still impossible to figure out ... CLEMSON 24-21.

Saturday

No. 1 Oklahoma (minus 6 1/2) vs. No. 5 Texas at Dallas

The better team usually wins the Red River Rivalry, and that would be ... OKLAHOMA 33-21.

No. 17 Oklahoma State (plus 13 1/2) at No. 3 Missouri

In matchup of great offenses, go with better defense ... MISSOURI 55-38.

No. 4 LSU (plus 6) at No. 11 Florida

Tigers' tough D-line vs. Gators' shaky O-line ... LSU 27-24.

No. 6 Penn State (minus 5) at Wisconsin

Can Badgers get ready for big game after two straight losses? ... PENN STATE 28-20.

Nebraska (plus 21) at No. 7 Texas Tech

Last time here, Huskers handed worst loss ever, 70-10. ... TEXAS TECH 69-10.

Arizona State (plus 26 1/2) at No. 8 Southern California

Even good Sun Devils' team usually roll over against Trojans ... USC 45-13.

New Mexico (plus 23 1/2) at No. 9 BYU

BYU's Max Hall builds his Heisman resume ... BYU 50-17.

Tennessee (plus 12 1/2) at No. 10 Georgia

Just what Vols didn't need to face a ticked off bunch of Bulldogs ... GEORGIA 28-14.

Purdue (plus 19) at No. 12 Ohio State

The Beanie and Terrelle show has rejuvenated Buckeyes ... OHIO STATE 39-13.

No. 13 Vanderbilt (minus 2 1/2) at Mississippi State

Can Commodores avoid letdown? ... VANDERBILT 17-10.

No. 14 Utah (plus 23 1/2) at Wyoming

Cowboys have worst offense in Mountain West ... UTAH 35-10.

No. 15 Boise State (minus 11 1/2) at Southern Miss

Broncos pounded Golden Eagles, 38-16, in Boise last season ... SOUTHERN MISS 38-30.

Colorado (plus 14) at No. 16 Kansas

Home team has won eight of 11 in the series ... KANSAS 35-17.

Arkansas (plus 19) at No. 20 Auburn

If Tigers can't find some offense this week, it could be long season ... AUBURN 28-14.

Notre Dame (plus 7 1/2) at No. 22 North Carolina

The echoes are stirring ... NOTRE DAME 28-23.

No. 23 Michigan State (plus 2 1/2) at Northwestern

Perfect Wildcats still looking for recognition ... MICHIGAN STATE 21-20.

No. 25 Ball State (minus 16) at Western Kentucky

High-scoring Cardinals enjoy first game as ranked team ... BALL STATE 44-24.

___

Last week: 14-4 (straight); 11-7 (vs. points).

Season: 90-23 (straight); 51-47 (vs. points).

Georgia, which plays Tennessee on Saturday, was penalized 10 times for 81 yards in its 41-30 loss to Alabama on Sept. 27.

Richt said he used an open week to make sure his players understand the penalties won't be tolerated. He had a quick answer Tuesday when asked how he is making that point.

"We're wearing them out. I'm wearing them out," Richt said. "I'm wearing them out physically for penalties, team and individuals."

Richt said he regretted not assigning extra running as punishment for penalties earlier in the season.

"Before I was a little reluctant to make such a strong point," Richt said, adding he was hesitant to take away "some aggressive play and that kind of thing."

"My strategy and my thoughts were wrong," he said. "Penalties have not slowed down and have cost us and I did a poor job on the front end of it. We're trying to correct it."

Georgia ranks 118th with its average of 87.4 penalty yards per game, ahead of only Florida State (90.0).

Richt said LSU and Florida are recent examples of teams that won championships while accumulating high penalty totals. Richt, the former Florida State offensive coordinator, said he remembers the Seminoles "were the worst in the league in penalties every year" when they ruled the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Georgia's penalty count against Alabama included two 15-yard personal fouls for late hits to the quarterback. Each penalty assisted the Tide on touchdown drives.

Alabama had only two penalties for nine yards in the game.

"They did not beat themselves that day," Richt said. "They beat us, but we helped them by not being disciplined on the penalty issue as we should."

The loss to Alabama came one week after Georgia won at Arizona State despite 12 penalties for 104 yards. Georgia had 11 penalties for 112 yards in a win at South Carolina.

"Most coaches will say you don't want penalties absolutely, but it is a pretty subjective thing," Richt said, adding a common coaching philosophy is "to teach fundamentals the best you can and sometimes you just have to hold your breath."

Richt said he's through holding his breath and hoping for a turnaround on penalties. He said his new policy is "just a much stronger accountability system than at the start of the year."

The players have heard the message.

"Everybody knows what mistakes that they made," said receiver Mohamed Massaquoi. "The most important thing is to learn from it and go on."

Offensive guard Chris Davis said penalties "are not what you want to lead the country in."

"We just need to be more focused," Davis said. "Penalties probably got us beat two weeks ago. Penalties have been killing us."

The loss to Alabama ended Georgia's 11-game winning streak, which began after last year's 35-14 loss at Tennessee. Georgia trailed the Vols 28-0 at halftime.

Georgia recovered to win its final seven games, scoring more than 40 points in four of the games. The streak included a 41-10 victory over Hawaii in the Sugar Bowl that left the Bulldogs No. 2 in the final 2007 poll.

The strong finish made the Tennessee game look like a turning point to the season. Quarterback Matthew Stafford said the embarrassing loss was a painful lesson.

"I don't think anybody after the Tennessee game was going, 'This is going to be a turning point for us," Stafford said Tuesday.

Now Georgia must try to rebound from a similarly lopsided loss. Alabama scored the first 31 points of its win over the Bulldogs.

"We have a wonderful opportunity to turn it around," Richt said. "I really hope we take advantage of it. I see nothing out there to make me feel like we won't turn it around.

"I believe that we have a bright future ahead of us and this game is huge in how our season is going to be remembered."

SEC East Notebook

Knowshon Moreno says one sore elbow won't keep him grounded.

Moreno, Georgia's sophomore tailback, has made highlight films with his knack for making dramatic leaps and dives through the air.

Moreno hurdled over a Central Michigan defender for a few extra yards on Sept. 6.

On Sept. 20 at Arizona State, Moreno took to the air again for what many believed was an even more dramatic few seconds of flight at the end of a 9-yard touchdown run.

Then, in Georgia's last game against Alabama, Moreno suffered a severely bruised elbow. There were initial concerns the injury would threaten Moreno's status for Saturday's game against Tennessee, but Moreno says he'll be fine.

And Moreno says he's not going to be wary or more air time on the field.

``I'll do anything that comes naturally,'' Moreno said, adding his leaps are not planned.

``It's not thinking. It's just what comes with the flow. I think every athlete does that.''

Moreno leads Georgia with 489 yards rushing and 10 touchdowns, leaving him tied for third in the nation in scoring. He also has 10 catches for 110 yards.

-- FLORIDA: Tim Tebow's cell phone has been pretty quiet, especially compared to what it was doing this time last year.

Tebow's phone started blowing up a week before Florida played LSU last October. He received hundreds of threatening voice and text messages.

Tebow said they increased as the game got closer. He eventually turned the phone off, but had to listen to each voice message and read each text message before deleting them.

He got a new number two days after the 28-24 loss in Baton Rouge and has been more cautious with handing out his digits since.

``I don't think they're going to get this number,'' the Heisman Trophy winner said as the 11th-ranked Gators prepared to host No. 4 LSU on Saturday night. ``I hope not. Not right now.''

Tebow assumed the messages were from LSU fans, especially given the nature of them. There also were reports out of Baton Rouge that students were walking around campus the day of the game wearing T-shirts with Tebow's cell phone printed on them.

The distraction didn't affect Tebow on the field. He ran 16 times for 67 yards and a touchdown and completed 12 of 26 passes for 158 yards and two scores.

But it clearly was on his mind. After his first TD pass, Tebow pretended as if he had a cell phone in his left hand and dialed numbers with his right. He then put it up to his ear and stared into the stands at Tiger Stadium.

-- KENTUCKY: Sure, beating LSU last year and Georgia in 2006 was nice, but there's still one mystery Kentucky has yet to solve in its attempts to climb the SEC food chain: Steve Spurrier.

Kentucky is 0-for-16 against Spurrier-coached teams over the years. Spurrier went 13-0 against the Wildcats at Florida and has yet to lose in three meetings with Kentucky while at South Carolina.

While the Wildcats insist there is no ``jinx'' when it comes to playing the ol' ball coach, they have found interesting ways to lose blow it the last few years. Last season Kentucky went into Columbia ranked No. 8 in the country but stumbled to a 38-23 loss in which the Gamecocks returned two fumbles for touchdowns.

``It's frustrating,'' said defensive end Jeremy Jarmon. ``We've had chances the past couple years to beat South Carolina, and something has happened ... fumbles, missed tackles, things like that.''

Spurrier used to poke fun at the Wildcats while coaching at Florida, though he's taken a more respectful approach since taking over at South Carolina. Yet the Wildcats say they have to treat South Carolina much like they've treated games against the SEC's elite the last few seasons, like they have nothing to lose.

``Those were previous years, this is a different year,'' said running back Derrick Locke. ``I'm not saying we're going to beat them, but you can't go off the past. They still have to show up to play just as we have to show up and play.''

-- SOUTH CAROLINA: Steve Spurrier is still trying to winnow out those at South Carolina not giving their all.

The Gamecocks fourth-year head ball coach says he's still has about 10 percent of his scholarship players giving what he says is ``50-60 percent'' effort.

``You have to ... you either weed them out or let them know that's not going to work here,'' Spurrier says. ``We're still working on it, still working on how to weed them out somehow, let them transfer, go somewhere else or get with the program.''

Spurrier wishes all his 85 scholarship athletes shared the do-it-all attitude of his two dozen or so walk-ons the Gamecocks use. ``Walk-on kids, they don't miss anything. They're the 100 percent guys,'' Spurrier says.

``Some of the lazy scholarship guys, you're right, the commitment level's just not what you need,'' he continued. ``You hope to change it and a lot of them will change over time, but if they don't after a while, you've just got to file them or put them on the scout team and when renewal time comes up, sometimes you just have to say, 'We don't have room for you now. You can't get with our program.'''

Spurrier hasn't had to send as many of those messages as he did when he first arrived. In fact, Spurrier's hopeful that some of his most recent players may be rounding into form at the right time.

The Gamecocks snapped a six-game Southeastern Conference losing streak with a 31-24 win at Ole Miss last week. South Carolina (4-2, 1-2 SEC) travels to Kentucky on Saturday.

-- TENNESSEE: Nick Stephens wasn't exactly nervous about his first start as Tennessee's quarterback.

``But I did have a lot of butterflies,'' he said. ``Going out there it was kind of surreal, to be honest with you. Going out there and taking the field when the score was 0-0 and leading the team, it was fun.''

The redshirt sophomore thinks having one game to his credit will be enough to keep his nerves from getting the best of him when the Vols (2-3, 0-2 Southeastern Conference) travel to No. 10 Georgia (4-1, 1-1) on Saturday.

Offensive coordinator Dave Clawson said he was satisfied with Stephens' play against Northern Illinois because the Flower Mound, Texas, native didn't make any really big mistakes.

``The fumble that he had, I think that happens to any quarterback,'' he said. ``I saw it (Monday) night, it happened to (New Orleans Saints quarterback) Drew Brees. You get that blind rusher and you don't see it and those things happen.''

Clawson said he thinks Stephens can shoulder a greater load of the offense now that he's proven he can run the huddle, call plays and manage the clock. But, he's not going to double Stephens' workload just for the sake of it.

``You run the offense, and you do the things you need to do to win the game and score points,'' Clawson said. ``And he has to be able to do that, but I don't think because he has one game under his belt that you say, 'OK, bang, here we go,' and you give him everything.''

-- VANDERBILT: When the 13th-ranked Commodores needed to pin Auburn deep, coach Bobby Johnson turned to punter Brett Upson. And Upson delivered.

Upson boomed a 55-yard punt that was downed at the Auburn 3. A play later, Myron Lewis intercepted a pass to help Vandy seal the 14-13 win that pushed the Commodores up six spots to their highest ranking since 1956. Johnson gave his punter rave reviews.

``He's done a fantastic job of helping us maintain or regain field status, and he's worked extremely hard on directional kicking, our rugby kicking, our pooch-kicking, and they've all paid off for us,'' Johnson said.

Johnson said Upson, now a 5-foot-11 junior, wasn't very comfortable with rugby kicking last year. Upson used that technique on one punt against Auburn. ``He got it rolling. You get a lot of net with little bit of a chance of a return,'' Johnson said.

Upson earned SEC special teams player of the week honors for averaging 38.1 yards net on punts against Auburn. He also is a big reason why the Commodores rank third in the SEC and 34th nationally averaging a net 37.1 yards per punt.

The Commodores (5-0, 3-0) visit Mississippi State (1-4, 0-2) on Saturday night.

SEC West Notebook

Defensive lineman Ricky Jean-Francois apologized this week for what he described as an unfortunate use of diction when he spoke about the pressure the Tigers' defense hoped to put on Florida quarterback and 2007 Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow.

Jean-Francois told the Orlando Sentinel that if LSU defenders had a chance to tackle Tebow this Saturday in Gainesville, they would try their best to ``take him out of the game.''

``Every lineman wants to get a good hit on a Heisman Trophy winner,'' Jean-Francois added.

After those comments were published, Jean-Francois said they had been misinterpreted.

``We never go into any football game trying to hurt a player from the other team,'' the 6-foot-3, 289-pound junior said in a written statement released by the team. ``We have great respect for Tim as player and a competitor. By taking him out of the game, I meant as a defense we are going to try to make him ineffective. I'm sorry that my initial comments were interpreted another way.''

Fellow LSU defenders said they were not terribly worried about the fallout caused by Jean-Francois' initial comments and would not have gotten riled up if an opponent had said something similar about an LSU player.

``Sometimes words can get mixed up and everything like that can happen with those kinds of reports ... so we just look at it and joke about it, but we don't take it serious,'' linebacker Kelvin Sheppard said. ``We don't really pay attention to all that. We try to focus in on the gameplan.''

Sheppard added that it would be unwise for LSU defenders to focus too much on Tebow.

``You definitely can't go against the University of Florida like that just focusing on one guy,'' Sheppard said. ``They have a lot of different guys capable of making big plays at any time.''

-- ALABAMA: Eryk Anders is what coach Nick Saban calls No. 2 Alabama's ``rabbit rusher.'' The linebacker often lines up at defensive end on passing downs and has been effective in the job.

``I kind of took a knack to it,'' Anders said. ``I'm trying to play my role right now and do what I can do, whatever my ability allows me to do.''

Once a recruiting afterthought, he leads the Crimson Tide with four quarterback hurries and has 14 tackles, more than both starting defensive ends. Alabama has an open date this week before playing Mississippi, the school Anders had initially planned to attend.

He was a late signee at Alabama in 2005 after declining an invitation to walk on, receiving a scholarship offer from then-coach Mike Shula less than two weeks before preseason camp started after another recruit failed to qualify academically.

When Anders comes onto the field, he typically replaces the nose tackle, either Terrence Cody or Josh Chapman.

``They're not the pass-rush guys,'' Saban said. ``Both guys can push the pocket and are power rushers. (But) the more athleticism and the more speed you put on the field, the better chance you have to finish in loose-play situations, whether it's screens, sacking the quarterback, affecting a scrambling quarterback, turning and breaking on the ball in short throws whatever it is.''

-- ARKANSAS: The Razorbacks had to shake up their offensive line, and they didn't appear any worse for wear against Florida last weekend.

Grant Cook took over one of the guard spots because of DeMarcus Love's ankle injury. Also, Michael Aguirre started at tackle when Ray Dominguez missed the game because of his grandmother's illness. Aguirre was then hurt on the first play from scrimmage and replaced by Grant Freeman.

``I think Cook played well. I would anticipate him having a good week of practice and being the starter there, but that's still yet to be seen,'' coach Bobby Petrino said Monday. ``Aguirre's going to be down for a little bit with his injury. Whether that's one week, two weeks or three weeks, I'm not sure yet.''

Petrino said Aguirre sprained an ankle and knee.

The Razorbacks rushed for 141 yards on 25 carries in their 38-7 loss to the Gators on Saturday. Arkansas allowed four sacks but lost only 8 yards on them, and Petrino credited quarterback Casey Dick for some of the improved pass protection.

``He's doing a real nice job in getting us out of bad plays, getting us to good plays, getting the protection set,'' Petrino said. ``Our communication up front was good, and (center) Jonathan Luigs handles a lot of that.''

-- AUBURN: No. 20 Auburn could be without the leader of its secondary against Arkansas.

Cornerback Jerraud Powers missed the second half of last weekend's Vanderbilt game with a hamstring injury, and coach Tommy Tuberville described him as doubtful for Saturday's game with the Razorbacks.

That would likely leave freshman Neiko Thorpe to make his first start against the Hogs and the Southeastern Conference's No. 2 passing offense.

``Jerraud plays a big role in the secondary,'' safety Mike McNeil said. ``He's one of the best players out there. We know when he goes down that we can't panic, because one man doesn't make a team.''

Thorpe has seen significant action, playing in every game, with 12 tackles and four pass breakups two of them coming against Vandy.

``I think the more and more he's played, he's gotten his confidence up,'' McNeil said. ``I feel confident with Neiko on the field. It's all about him getting in a rhythm and getting a feel for the game.''

Powers leads the team with two interceptions and is third with 26 tackles. He has started 19 consecutive games. Along with Thorpe, freshman cornerback D'Antoine Hood has also played in every game.

Confidence doesn't seem to be a problem for Thorpe. He had a team-high seven tackles in his first college game against Louisiana-Monroe. Walt McFadden, who starts opposite Powers, called Thorpe ``an all-around corner'' and said he played well in Powers' absence against Vandy.

``He got his feet wet. From what I watched on film, he did great,'' McFadden said.

-- OLE MISS: Turnovers had a lot to do with it, but Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt thinks his new team's attitude is to blame for the Rebels' three narrow losses this season.

Nutt said he could feel the team deflate after South Carolina wiped out a first-half deficit with a fumble return for a touchdown in a game the Gamecocks eventually won 31-24.

``It's only one play. I saw it in my guys' eyes that they didn't see it that way,'' Nutt said. ``The only things I know to do are keep helping them and encouraging them (to) realize that it's the next play. We go into halftime ahead, but it didn't feel that way.''

It should be no surprise that Nutt will spend a portion of the Rebels' open week working on eliminating turnovers. They've cost Ole Miss wins over Vanderbilt and South Carolina. And a pair of late penalties against Wake Forest helped the Demon Deacons to a last-second field goal to beat Ole Miss.

Worse than the turnovers, though, is the effect they have on the players.

The ever-positive Nutt has been surprised at how hard it has been to change the attitude at Ole Miss, where the Rebels had four losing seasons with four wins or fewer before Nutt took over.

As it turned out, even the 31-30 win over then-No. 4 Florida didn't do much to help.

``The South Carolina and Vanderbilt games have been the toughest because you're right in the position to win,'' Nutt said. ``You're hoping a game like Florida, to go to the Swamp and win that one will, really kick you to another level. What makes it difficult for us is this league.''

-- MISSISSIPPI STATE: Anthony Dixon is ready to carry the load.

Injuries and coach Sylvester Croom's attempt to spread backfield duties around have slowed the 1,000-yard rusher's bullish attack on linebackers this season, but no more.

Croom announced this week that Dixon will play every down possible against No. 13 Vanderbilt, regardless of situation, personnel package or matchup.

``I told him, 'If you need a rest, throw your hand up, let me know and come on out of the game. Otherwise stay out there,''' Croom said.

Croom tried to get more snaps for backups Christian Ducre and the speedy Robert Elliott during the team's disappointing 1-4 start. But Elliott's now gone with a season-ending knee injury and Ducre has disappointed coaches with missed assignments.

The 6-foot-1, 240-pound Dixon has thrived in the past under a heavy workload. He rushed for 1,066 yards and 14 touchdowns on a school-record 287 carries last season and helped grind down opponents in a handful of narrow victories that pushed the Bulldogs to a winning season for the first time under Croom.

Dixon hasn't had the same kind of success this season. He's rushed for 320 yards and three touchdowns on 71 carries and is averaging just 64 yards rushing per game.

His carries per game have dropped from 22 to 14, but that should change dramatically this week.

``Everybody who knows me knows that's how I like to play the game,'' Dixon said. ``It's all I've been waiting for. That's what I want to do. That's the kind of football I want to play.''



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