Losing Thomas Brown in a defeat to Tennessee last season put Georgia into a tailspin it never recovered from. At least this year, the Bulldogs have a better idea of the kind of challenge that now awaits them.
After losing Brown under circumstances similar to 2006, No. 24 Georgia looks to avoid another letdown against Vanderbilt when the SEC rivals meet Saturday night.
Last season, the Bulldogs won their first five games before losing 51-33 to the Volunteers on Oct. 7. They lost Brown to a season-ending knee injury in that game, fell 24-22 to the Commodores in their following contest and finished the season 9-4.
This year’s Georgia team is facing a similar situation.
The Bulldogs (4-2, 2-2) dropped 12 spots in this week’s AP poll following a 25-14 loss to then-unranked Tennessee last Saturday, and Brown will now miss four to six weeks because of a broken collarbone.
The Bulldogs haven’t won an East Division matchup since last year’s loss to the Vols, dropping games to Vanderbilt, Florida and Kentucky in 2006 and South Carolina this season. After Saturday’s matchup with the Commodores (3-2, 1-2), three of Georgia’s final five regular-season games are against ranked teams.
“We have to have leadership,” offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said. “We have to have guys step up and we as coaches have to coach harder.”
Bobo and the Bulldogs offense may have a tough time rebounding after losing Brown, who with 2,280 yards is 301 away from becoming one of the top five rushers in school history. Bulldogs coach Mark Richt wasn’t sure whether Brown broke the collarbone against Tennessee or the previous week in a victory over Mississippi.
Georgia was held under 100 yards rushing in three of seven games after losing Brown last year. Brown, a senior, has 427 yards and a team-high six touchdowns on the ground this season.
Knowshon Moreno and Kregg Lumpkin are expected to pick up the slack on offense. Moreno has a team-high 485 rushing yards, while Lumpkin has just seven carries for 31 yards.
“They are both going to play an awful lot,” Richt said. “I think the play will be close to 50-50.”
The Bulldogs lost to the Commodores last season despite outrushing them 136-101. Vanderbilt brought a 2-4 record into that game, and is now coming off its worst loss of this season.
The Commodores won two straight before losing 35-7 to Auburn last Saturday, and they’re now thinking of making a change at quarterback as they prepare for their first ranked opponent of the season. Chris Nickson’s string of 17 straight starts for Vanderbilt is in danger after he threw for just 38 yards on 5-for-16 passing against the Tigers.
Nickson was replaced by sophomore Mackenzie Adams, who didn’t fare much better. The pair are competing for the starting job this week.
Nickson has completed 60 of 113 passes for 757 yards with six touchdowns and five interceptions, but believes he can recover.
“You’ve got to have confidence to play football, especially this position,” Nickson said. “A lot of guys aren’t pleased with the way things went, but you’ve got to maintain your confidence and keep striving for your goals and that’s what we’re going to do.”
A quarterback change could spark the Commodores’ offense, but it could also prove to be a disruption. Whoever starts under center Saturday will benefit from having one of the best receivers in SEC history.
“I worked with both of them this summer,” said Vanderbilt’s Earl Bennett, who is seven catches shy of breaking the SEC career receptions record. “Timing shouldn’t be a hard thing to catch up with. I’m pretty comfortable with whoever gets in there this weekend.”
Bennett broke the school mark with his 201st reception midway through the third quarter last weekend, but was held to a season-low 31 yards on four catches.
Bennett tops the SEC with 41 receptions for 499 yards and four touchdowns to lead a Commodores offense that scored at least 30 points in three of four games before last Saturday’s contest.
Georgia is 47-18-2 against Vanderbilt.