NEW ORLEANS — Knowshon Moreno is the star of Georgia’s offense.
He won’t be starting in the Sugar Bowl, however.
Moreno has been bothered by a sprained ankle since the regular-season finale against Georgia Tech, so senior Thomas Brown will get the start in Tuesday night’s game against unbeaten Hawaii.
Moreno, the first freshman to rush for 1,000 yards at Georgia since Herschel Walker, looked better in practice after arriving in New Orleans. But coach Mark Richt said Brown has been more productive throughout bowl preparations.
Both players are expected to get equal playing time if Moreno’s ankle holds up.
"Thomas was the starter at the beginning of the year. It’s his senior year. He’s performed as well as anyone on the team," Richt said Monday. "We’ve kind of gone game by game seeing who would start. They’re so close in productivity, we might have started Thomas anyway."
But the decision was sealed by Moreno’s gimpy ankle, which contributed to him rushing for just 45 yards on 17 carries against Georgia Tech after five straight 100-yard games. Brown also had 17 carries in that game, but accounted for 139 yards and a touchdown.
Moreno was the catalyst for Georgia’s turnaround after a 21-point loss to Tennessee appeared to doom any hopes of reaching a major bowl.
The redshirt freshman rushed for 1,273 yards — the first 1,000-yard season by a Georgia back since Musa Smith in 2002 — and 12 touchdowns. He also pumped up the Bulldogs with his infectious enthusiasm, injecting some much-needed emotion into a team that lacked it through the first half of the season.
Hawaii coach June Jones has repeatedly said how much he loves the island state and that he has no plans to leave.
However, he never promised this will be his final stop.
Jones, the winningest coach in school history, is in the final season of a five-year, $4 million contract. He is the third highest-paid coach in the Western Athletic Conference, behind Fresno State’s Pat Hill and Boise State’s Chris Petersen.
If Hawaii doesn’t give the 55-year-old Jones what he wants, there could be opportunities at other schools or in the NFL, where he previously served as head coach of the Atlanta Falcons during the mid-1990s.
Jones has talked about poor facilities and the lack of resources at Hawaii. The football recruiting budget, for example, is just $50,000.
The player gifts sure have been sweet at the Sugar Bowl.
The bowl gave each player a digital camcorder, leather jacket, travel bag, baseball cap, watch and commemorative football. They also received nearly $700 in per diem.
Hawaii also gave its players an Apple iTouch.
The gifts saved Warriors receiver Ryan Grice-Mullen from having to do any Christmas shopping.
"You wrap it up, ‘Hey, here you go. I spent a lot of money for this.’ They don’t know," he said.
Georgia defensive tackle Jeff Owens said he compared gifts with friends from other bowl-bound teams.
Owens gave his camcorder away to his older brother as a gift.
"He’s like, ‘This is expensive,"’ Owens said. "Only if he had known."
BLACKOUT, PART II
Georgia isn’t counting on a huge emotional boost from its choice of uniforms.
Still, the Bulldogs are calling for another blackout at the Superdome.
Coach Mark Richt will allow his team to wear black jerseys for the second time this season, though there’s no attempt at concealing the colors for this game. The players even posed for the Sugar Bowl team picture wearing the alternate jersey, first used to great effect in a November win over Auburn.
Georgia learned a lesson from its last trip to the Sugar Bowl.
Two seasons ago, the Bulldogs rolled into the bowl as a huge favorite against Big East champion West Virginia, having won the Southeastern Conference title and benefiting from a home-field advantage (the game was moved to Atlanta from New Orleans in the wake off Hurricane Katrina).
But the Mountaineers raced to a 28-0 lead by the opening minute of the second quarter and held on for a 38-35 upset.
Georgia coach Mark Richt blames himself for giving his team too much time off before the bowl. He said the players weren’t in top condition, and it showed on the field.
This time, the Bulldogs went through conditioning every day and even practiced the night they arrived in New Orleans.
"I think we’re more focused now, starting at the top," Richt said. "We don’t want to be caught again with our pants down. We want to be ready."