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September 21, 2009

ASU preparing for season's first real test

At long last, the much-anticipated rematch with Georgia is on tap for the Arizona State football team.

It was just a year ago when the Bulldogs conquered Sun Devil Stadium and waltzed out of town with an easy 27-10 victory.

Gone are quarterback Matthew Stafford and running back Knowshon Moreno to the NFL, but the Bulldogs are still an SEC powerhouse anyway you cut it.

"We'll find out a little bit more about what we are as a team and that's the bottom line," ASU coach Dennis Erickson said. "It's not a matter of who we play and what their rank is, we're just searching right now for where we're at as a football team. That's my biggest concern."

The dynamic of both teams has certainly changed over the last 12 months, but the game still features similar storylines. Georgia's offense has looked robust since dropping its season opener to Oklahoma State 24-10.

Much of that success has to do with Georgia senior quarterback Joe Cox, who has been very efficient in his past two contests.

Since having a pedestrian outing against OSU, Cox has gone a combined 35-of-49 for 576 yards and seven touchdowns against just two interceptions. Last week, Cox tied a school record by throwing five touchdowns in his team's 52-41 win at Arkansas.

"They've got tremendous skill," Erickson said of Georgia's offensive weapons. "Their quarterback's playing really, really well right now … They get the deep ball, they get big plays just because of their skill out there. They're a typical really, really Southeast Conference team. They've got all kinds of speed."

Cox's main target will likely be sophomore wide receiver A.J. Green, who lit up ASU for a career-high 159 yards last year in Tempe. Erickson called Green "as good as there is."

According to Erickson, most of Georgia's biggest plays come off the play-action. He said his team's front seven has to do a good job of containing Georgia's running attack to keep ASU from playing man-to-man coverage.

To do that, ASU will have to slow down Georgia's tailback tandem of sophomores Richard Samuel and Caleb King. Samuel is the bruiser of the two and is most effective in between the tackles, while King can stretch the defense on the corners.

Offensively, the Sun Devils will have to hope its line is up to the challenge. Georgia's front seven is one of the most athletic that ASU will face all season.

"I like where were at," Erickson said of the development of his offensive front. "Are we a great offensive line? No. But we're getting better all the time. We're better than we were a year ago at this time, I'll say that much."

Erickson said sophomore center Garth Gerhart will probably be available Saturday, but given the solid play of senior center Thomas Altieri, Gerhart might not see the field anyways. Sophomore Zach Schlink will be questionable for Saturday, according to Erickson.

Despite its abundance of athletes, Georgia's defense still looks shaky on paper, especially when it comes to defending the pass. Opponents have averaged 285.3 yards per game through the air against the Bulldogs this season.

But ASU's skilled receiving corps could be rendered useless by Mother Nature, if the forecast holds true. Georgia is currently under siege by heavy rains and Athens, Ga. is expecting rain and thunderstorms through the weekend.

If that's the case, ASU may have to lean on its running game more than usual Saturday.

Rain or shine, though, you can be sure the Bulldog fans will show up in full force to cheer on their team between the hedges.

"This is a tremendous opportunity for these guys to go down there and play," Erickson said of his players. "Enjoy it. Shoot, let's go down and play. Let's have fun. That's how you got to do it, I'm not worried about atmosphere. I'm not going to tell them that it's not noisy - it's going to be nosier than heck we've got to deal with that kind of stuff down there. To me, this is what college football is all about."


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