Belk Bowl: Georgia, Louisville gear up for top 25 marquee matchup

Georgia quarterback Hutson Mason doesn’t believe his teammates need a reminder of the importance of finishing the season well in Tuesday night’s Belk Bowl against Louisville at Bank of America Stadium.

He was more than willing to offer one up anyway.

“We’ve got every excuse that we want to say we have a lot of distractions, but that’s kind of been the story for us all year,” said Mason, who passed for 2,019 yards and 20 touchdowns this season for the Bulldogs (9-3).

“We’re pretty veteran at dealing with distractions and learning how to move on. I fully expect us to still come out and play our best game.”

No. 13 Georgia began the year with national championship aspirations and a Heisman Trophy candidate in running back Todd Gurley. But Gurley played the first five games before an NCAA-mandated four-game suspension for taking money for autographs. Then he tore the ACL in his left knee in his first game back Nov. 15 against Auburn, costing him the rest of the season.

The Bulldogs finished second in the SEC East and stumbled into bowl season on the heels of a 30-24 overtime loss to Georgia Tech.

In recent weeks, the Bulldogs lost offensive coordinator Mike Bobo, who left to become coach at Colorado State, and Friday, Georgia coach Mark Richt announced freshman Isaiah McKenzie, the team’s top kick and punt returner, was suspended for the Belk Bowl.

“There aren’t a lot of bowl games out there with a Top 25 matchup,” Mason said of Tuesday’s game with No. 20 Louisville (9-3). “This is a very good Louisville team with a very good defense.

“This is a bottom-line business, a black-and-white business, and we didn’t do what we wanted to do this year, but we still need to take stock of the big picture and what we can accomplish.

“We can still be a pretty daggone special team.”

While not featuring any local teams, this Belk Bowl offers up the most marquee matchup in its 13-year history.

The ACC was one of the original conferences to have a tie-in to the bowl, and this year’s game is the first featuring a matchup with a team from the SEC. It’s also the first time two ranked teams have met in the game.

The Cardinals, playing their first season in the ACC with new coach Bobby Petrino, in his second go-round at the helm, are second in the nation against the run, allowing 2.94 yards per carry.

Petrino said his team will be tested by Georgia’s strong running attack.

“Georgia is very good up front and they do a great job in their blocking schemes,” he said. “Their running backs are able to break tackles.

“They also have a great play-action pass game, so you have to be very disciplined with your eyes.”

The Cardinals face some uncertainty of their own coming into the game. During a news conference Monday, Petrino declined to name his starter at quarterback.

“I think we’re going to let you see when they run out there who the starter is,” he said.

Petrino did say freshman Reggie Bonnafon and Kyle Bolin, a redshirt freshman, will play.

Bonnafon became the team’s starter Nov. 8 after an injury to Will Gardner. Bonnafon injured his knee in the regular-season finale against Kentucky and Bolin took over, throwing for 381 yards and three touchdowns in the 44-40 win.

“We’re real fortunate that we have two guys who have playing experience and have won big games for us,” Petrino said. “All of our players have confidence in both guys.”

Last week, Louisville also announced senior Michael Dyer, the team’s second-leading rusher, had been ruled academically ineligible.

“I’m very proud of my team,” Petrino said. “One thing this team has done is stick together while understanding that hard work does pay off.”

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