ATHENS — When A.J. Green hauled in a crucial third-down reception to set up Georgia’s game-winning field goal last week, no one on the Bulldogs’ sideline was surprised. They know how good Green is. In fact, that’s sort of the problem.
Green’s ability to make acrobatic catches in traffic has earned raves from fans and coaches, but it has also helped convince his quarterbacks that some ill-advised passes are worth making because the superstar receiver so routinely manages to catch them.
It’s a double-edged sword, offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said. On one hand, the more passes thrown Green’s way, the better. On the other hand, forcing throws between defenders can lead to disaster — something quarterback Joe Cox learned firsthand when two of his passes were intercepted in the second half of the Bulldogs’ win over Arizona State last week.
“We’ve just got to educate him on which ones we want him to force them to and which ones we don’t,” Bobo said, laughing at the simplicity of it all.
In truth, utilizing Georgia’s best offensive weapon is actually a fine line of decision making, and finding the right balance of risk and reward may not get any tougher than it will be this week against a stout LSU secondary.
While Georgia has struggled through 12 turnovers already this season — one of the worst marks in the nation — the Tigers lead the SEC in turnover margin and 6-foot-1 cornerback Patrick Peterson and 6-3 safety Chad Jones are gearing up for more this week.
“We’re not going up against some small corners that wouldn’t have a chance against the jump ball situations that A.J. has been winning all along,” head coach Mark Richt said. “I’m sure by scheme and just by pure athleticism and size they will match up better than anybody we’ve played.”
Last week, while Cox tossed two interceptions to Arizona State safety Jarrell Holman, Peterson was busy sinking Mississippi State’s bid for an upset by returning an interception 37 yards for a touchdown.
The same attributes that have earned Green rave reviews — speed, size and athleticism — have made Peterson, a sophomore, one of the most feared corners in the SEC.
“He’s a big guy,” Cox said of Peterson. “He’s fast, he’s aggressive, and you can just tell by the way he plays he loves what he does. He’s one of their best players and a guy we’re going to have to be concerned about all day.”
While Peterson provides one challenge, Jones adds another degree of difficulty.
The junior free safety was integral in halting two goal-line plays against Mississippi State last week, earning the Walter Camp defensive player of the week honors for his efforts. Jones has two interceptions already this season.
“It’s going to be a great challenge, but it’s going to be a great opportunity, too,” Cox said. “I think we match up well with them, and I think if we execute we can get the job done.”
Execution will be a matter of making smart decisions, Cox said.
Watching the film of last week’s interceptions, Cox’s check-down receiver was open both times. Instead, he tried to force passes to Green, and the results were disastrous.
This week, Cox will need to be smarter with the football. It’s not that he shouldn’t take risks, Bobo said, it’s that he has to know when the risks are worthwhile.
“You’ve got to have the ability to throw it down the middle, the ability to take chances to make big plays,” Bobo said. “But at the same time, there’s a fine line there.”
So despite his five interceptions this season and in spite of the dangerous opponent on the horizon, Cox said his confidence hasn’t been shaken. After all, Green is too good to ignore for long.
The key, however, might have little to do with Green’s game and everything to do with how the rest of the offense plays. A few completions to Georgia’s other receivers and a handful of big runs by the tailbacks could go a long way to easing the stranglehold LSU hopes to place on the Bulldogs’ best player.
“We’re going to give A.J. a chance to catch balls, but we need to make sure that we’re executing in the run game, executing in all our other aspects of the passing game,” Cox said. “It’s just being productive across the board, and that will even free up A.J. more, sort of the same way it worked out with Arkansas. There’s going to be a lot of attention on A.J. against anyone we play.”
That’s how it has been all season, and the extra attention hasn’t seemed to slow Green down any.
So regardless of the matchup, Green’s expectations won’t be any different this week. In fact, it’s possible these past few games have simply been a bit too easy.
“I like big challenges like this,” Green said. “That brings my game to a different level.”