ATHENS — At this time a year ago, A.J. Green was having trouble just remembering Georgia’s plays. He didn’t even bother trying to figure out what the guys on the other side of the line might do.
"I was just out there running" is how Georgia’s sophomore receiver put it.
That can’t be encouraging news for Arizona State. The Sun Devils had enough trouble covering Green when he didn’t know what he was doing.
As No. 21 Georgia (2-1) got ready to face the Sun Devils (2-0) tonight, Green looked back a bit on his coming-out party in the desert. He was just another highly touted but unproven freshman when these teams met last season, having caught eight passes for 141 yards in his first three games but still a bit unsure of this whole college thing.
"I couldn’t remember the plays half the time," Green said. "I couldn’t read coverages."
He sure did a good of faking it against Arizona State, making eight catches for what is still a career-best 159 yards in Georgia’s 27-10 victory at Tempe.
"I didn’t know I had that much yardage," Green said nonchalantly. "It didn’t feel like that. I just knew I had a couple of big catches."
He considers himself a much more polished receiver now that he’s got a season under his belt. Just ask Arkansas, which spent much of last weekend trying to double-cover Green but still gave up seven catches for 137 yards and two touchdowns in a wild 52-41 game that went Georgia’s way.
"My game is better," Green said. "It’s not where I want it to be, but it’s getting better. I’m smarter. I’m playing different positions. I’m just learning football, learning how to read coverages and stuff like that."
As much as any team, the Sun Devils know what they’re up against. All they have to do is pull out that tape from last year’s game.
"A.J. Green might be as good of a receiver as there is in the country," Arizona State coach Dennis Erickson said.
But the Bulldogs showed last week there’s more to their passing game than just Green. Michael Moore had six catches for 91 yards. Tavarres King hauled in a 50-yard touchdown pass. Orson Charles scored on a 44-yarder. Aron White hauled in a 21-yard TD.
By the time the high-scoring night was done, quarterback Joe Cox had spread the ball around to five different receivers, throwing for 375 yards and tying a school record with five touchdown passes.
"They have tremendous skill," Erickson said. "All their backs catch well. Their front is good and their quarterback is playing really well right now, so they create a lot of problems. They create it with play action pass because they run the football really well. They get the deep ball and they get big plays just because of their skill out there."
No one benefits more than Green from having a well-diversified passing game.
In the beginning, Arkansas was determined to have two defenders on him, rolling a safety to his side of the field. But that really opened up things in the middle, which the Bulldogs were able to exploit time and time again. When the Razorbacks started playing more straight-up coverage, Green had much more room to operate.
"We knew coming into this season that A.J. was going to get double and triple teams," King said. "We knew we had make plays when our number was called. With us doing that, it just opens up the gates for A.J. to do what he does."
Even though the Bulldogs lost two key players on offense — quarterback Matthew Stafford was the top overall pick in the NFL draft, and running back Knowshon Moreno also was a first-round selection — Erickson doesn’t notice much difference between this team and the one that doused Arizona State’s big expectations in 2008.
"I think they’re every bit as good as they were a year ago," the coach said. "Obviously they are getting better. When you lose guys like Knowshon Moreno and Matt Stafford offensively, it hurts you early, but Joe Cox is playing extremely well at quarterback. The last two weeks I didn’t see any drop off."
Indeed, Georgia’s offense is mostly responsible for a 2-0 start in Southeastern Conference play, piling up big yards in a 41-37 victory over South Carolina and last week’s shootout in Fayetteville.
The defense? That’s another story. Georgia ranks among the nation’s worst in points allowed (108th), passing yards (112th) and total yards (97th).
Arizona State is averaging 44 points a game, but this will be its first serious test. The first two wins were against Idaho State (50-3) and Louisiana-Monroe (38-14).
The Sun Devils haven’t fared very well against ranked teams, going 3-26 in these matchups since 2000. Most times, it hasn’t even been close, the losses coming by an average of 17 points. Last year, Arizona State lost to Georgia and USC by a combined 55-10, dropping Erickson’s record to 1-5 against the Top 25 since he took over as coach.
"Although Louisiana-Monroe had some athletes, we’ll find out a little bit more about what we are as a team," Erickson said. "It will be interesting to find out exactly where we’re at when we go down there and play."