NEW ORLEANS — After beating up on unbeaten Hawaii, the Georgia Bulldogs sounded a bit miffed about getting passed over for a shot at the national championship. Patience, guys. Next season could be your year.
Showing off a dazzling array of young talent Tuesday night, fourth-ranked Georgia closed its comeback of a season with a dominating 41-10 rout of Colt Brennan and the BCS-crashing Warriors.
At every turn, a freshman or sophomore made a huge play for the Bulldogs, be it Knowshon Moreno (two touchdown runs), Rennie Curran (two sacks), Matthew Stafford (a TD pass) or Asher Allen (nine tackles, two interceptions).
While Florida and Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow are the early favorites for next season, keep an eye on the Gators’ Southeastern Conference rival. The Bulldogs certainly provided a tantalizing glimpse of their 2008 potential against Hawaii, which came in seeking perfection and left thoroughly whipped. ‘‘It was the fastest team I’ve probably ever seen,’’ said Warriors quarterback Colt Brennan, a Heisman finalist whose college career ended with a thud.
Georgia coach Mark Richt wasn’t about to make any bold predictions, but he conceded the obvious.
‘‘We’re going to return a very good football team,’’ he said. ‘‘We’ll be more of a veteran team than we’ve had in a while. We’ll have some good depth. We’ll have a chance to make a run at it. But so do about six or seven others in our league.’’ Georgia closed the season with seven straight wins after a sluggish start, the last of them on the very same field where Ohio State will meet LSU in the national title game next Monday.
The Bulldogs (11-2) feel they’re as deserving as either of those teams — and they’ll certainly get no argument from Hawaii (12-1), which failed to pull off another Boise State Miracle. ‘‘We’re No. 1,’’ Georgia safety Kelin Johnson proclaimed. ‘‘We’re supposed to be in the national championship game. The nation knows it, everyone knows it.’’ Moreno ran for a pair of touchdowns in the opening quarter and the Bulldogs’ swarming defense made life miserable for Brennan, a Heisman Trophy finalist and catalyst for the nation’s highest-scoring team. He was sacked eight times, threw three interceptions and lost two fumbles, one of them recovered for a Georgia touchdown. After getting slammed to the Superdome turf one last time by Geno Atkins, Brennan staggered to the sideline, his night mercifully done. The junior had the worst showing of his career in a game played to the finish, going 22-of-38 for just 169 yards, less than half of his 348-yard average this season. The Bulldogs led 24-3 by halftime and quickly snuffed out any chance Brennan might lead an improbable comeback, as he did in bringing Hawaii back from a 21-point deficit in their regular-season finale against Washington.
On Hawaii’s first possession after the break, Brennan was sacked by Roderick Battle, then picked off by Allen. The Warriors held, getting an interception of their own on a tipped ball, but that merely set up Brennan for more misery.
Marcus Howard, who spent as much time in the Hawaii backfield as the guys wearing white, sped by tackle Keoni Steinhoff like he wasn’t even there and crashed into Brennan. The ball rolled loose in the end zone and Howard recovered, giving him as many touchdowns as the vaunted run-and-shoot offense that was averaging 46.2 points a game.
‘‘It just shows it’s not always about offense,’’ said Howard, who was named the game’s MVP after making three sacks, forcing two fumbles and tipping a pass that was intercepted by teammate Dannell Ellerbe. ‘‘Defense wins ballgames, and that’s what happened tonight.’’ The senior end played his final college game, but he knows the Bulldogs are sitting pretty for next season. ‘‘They have a great nucleus coming back,’’ Howard said. ‘‘It will be fun to watch them.’’
Georgia lobbied for a spot in the title game after the top two teams in the BCS rankings lost on the final day of the regular season. But the Bulldogs, who didn’t even make the SEC championship game, had to settle for their third Sugar Bowl appearance in five years. With their title hopes dashed, Richt urged his players to get a good start on 2008, knowing an impressive win over the Warriors would surely set up the Dawgs for a top-five ranking at the start of next season — and better positioning for a run at No. 1.
Consider it done. Hawaii hoped to follow the lead set by another Western Athletic Conference team. Last season, Boise State capped a perfect season with a stunning overtime win against Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl. In the locker room before the game, coach June Jones urged his team to ‘‘play with confidence, like you belong.’’ They didn’t.
‘‘We’ve never played in this element,’’ Brennan said. ‘‘We got here and we tried as hard as we could to keep it as normal as we’re used to, but it just seemed like we weren’t used to this kind of venue. We weren’t used to the crowd noise. We couldn’t get our audibles.’’ Hawaii finally got to the end zone with 10 minutes to go and backup quarterback Tyler Graunke running the offense. He tossed a meaningless 16-yard TD pass to Ryan Grice-Mullen while Brennan watched from the sideline.
In all fairness to the Hawaii star, this wasn’t really a fair fight. The Bulldogs were so much stronger, so much faster, so much better in so many areas. Still, it was tough to be serenaded with chants of ‘‘Overrrated! Overrated!’’ by the Georgia faithful. ‘‘They’re a great football team,’’ Brennan said. ‘‘I’m just really disappointed that we didn’t show up and at least play our type of football. We’re such a better football team than what we showed tonight.’’