They had donned their black jerseys in an effort to excite the crowd. ESPN’s “GameDay” broadcast live from Athens. The evening kickoff game Georgia plenty of time to listen to the pundits talk about how big a game it was and how good the Bulldogs were.
“I think guys just got too caught up in the whole blackout thing, being able to come in here and watch TV, just watch them talk about Georgia on TV, and guys got caught up in it.”
So before the Bulldogs hosted Tennessee a week later, head coach Mark Richt decided to make a change. The team went straight from their rooms to the stadium, dressed and went out on the field. No TV, no conversations with friends and family, no time to lose focus.
In essence, they treated it like a road game.
Most teams prefer a home-field advantage, and Richt certainly isn’t complaining about the crowds at Sanford Stadium. But all he had to do was look at his record in front of opponents’ home crowds to realize the Bulldogs played better as road warriors.
“I thought that at home there are a few more distractions, so I wanted to simulate and treat it like an away game,” Richt said. “When you go right from the hotel to the stadium, put your pads on, warm up and go, there’s not a lot of time to lose your focus.”
Since coming to Georgia, Richt’s teams have lost just four times in an opponent’s stadium, so the decision made sense. It paid off with consecutive wins, too.
Today, however, the Bulldogs won’t be simulating a road game. It’s the real thing. Georgia will take the field in a place where one of those four road losses occurred, the first stop on a four-game stretch away from the friendly confines of Sanford Stadium.
After two weeks of faking it, however, the Bulldogs couldn’t be more comfortable doing the real thing.
“This week, we’re not going to get caught up in hype, we’re just going to go out there and play ball from quarter one to the end of the game,” defensive end Jeremy Lomax said.
Avoiding the hype shouldn’t be a problem, but tuning out the raucous LSU crowd is a different story altogether.
The last time Georgia played in Baton Rouge, Richt learned just how tough it is to gain momentum in an arena known as Death Valley, a place where the school proudly proclaims that crowd noise once registered on the Richter scale.
Georgia’s Tyson Browning had just scored on a 93-yard screen pass late in the fourth quarter to tie the game at 10. Richt expected the big play to silence the crowd. Instead, a chant of “L-S-U, L-S-U” erupted from the stands.
“It got louder, louder and louder,” Richt said. “It was the loudest I have ever heard a stadium.”
Three minutes later, the Tigers scored a go-ahead touchdown and handed Richt the first of his four road losses.
Richt learned his lesson from his last encounter with the LSU faithful. Always expect the unexpected and never panic on the sideline. In short, when you’re in front of the other team’s fans, always keep your focus.
That’s not just a message Richt has passed along to his team this time around, but it’s a mentality he has instilled in them over the years.
“He just sets the mood and sets the tempo when we go to away games, making sure that everything we do is ready to go, we’re all on the same level mentally and just relaxed,” linebacker Rennie Curran said. “We go in there knowing it’s just us and nobody else. We’re all we have during the game when we’re on the road.”
As road tests go, they don’t get much bigger than this one. Georgia and LSU each have one loss, meaning the winner of today’s game keeps its national-title hopes alive while the loser will spent the rest of the season playing catch-up in the SEC.
The hype for this game rivals what the Bulldogs experienced before they took the field against Alabama. This time, however, they’re armed with a much better outlook.
“If you don’t embrace this game, you probably shouldn’t be playing in it,” Richt said. “When you decide to come to Georgia, it’s because you get to play in those kind of games. I think the players are excited and ready to embrace the opportunity.”