- David Ching, ESPN Staff Writer
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ATHENS, Ga. -- Sloppy play plagued his team -- particularly on special teams -- and drew boos from some waterlogged fans on a rainy afternoon, but Georgia coach Mark Richt found at least one satisfying aspect of Saturday's 45-21 win against North Texas.
Once Richt's team absolutely had to get serious, it stopped playing around. The Bulldogs (2-1) used a solid effort from their defense and a 24-0 run to close out the game after a North Texas (2-2) blocked punt resulted in a touchdown that made it 21-all early in the third quarter.
“We got ourselves into a fight,” Richt said. “It was tied, obviously, in the second half and it could've got real ugly, but it didn't. We continued to settle the game down by playing great defense and continued to move the ball and get some points, and we were able to finish the game without a lot of drama. It could've been very dramatic. It was very dramatic until we pulled away a little bit.”
No. 9 Georgia moved the ball seemingly at will Saturday, outgaining North Texas 641 yards -- fourth most in school history -- to 245. The Mean Green had barely exceeded 200 yards of total offense before their final drive against mostly reserves from Georgia. Yet thanks to a North Texas 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, the blocked-punt score and an Aaron Murray interception in the Mean Green end zone, the outcome was in doubt far later into the afternoon than the pregame 32-point spread might have indicated.
However, Todd Grantham's defense delivered its first strong performance of the season, limiting North Texas to just one offensive touchdown a game after surrendering just six points in the second half of a win against South Carolina. The Bulldogs' run defense was particularly stout, allowing just seven yards on 25 attempts -- which tied for the fewest surrendered in any Football Bowl Subdivision game this year.
“I thought them guys played their tails off,” Grantham said. “They hung in there, were put in some tough spots, showed mental toughness. Tray [Matthews] got a turnover. I'm proud of the way those guys played.”
In hindsight, freshman safety Matthews' interception -- the first of his career and first of the season for the Bulldogs -- might have been one of the biggest plays of the game. Georgia had just taken a 28-21 lead when North Texas had driven to the Bulldogs' 27. Matthews easily picked off a Derek Thompson pass -- he credited cornerback Damian Swann for re-routing a North Texas receiver who should have been in the vicinity -- at the Georgia 5 to halt a potential game-tying drive.
The Bulldogs then drove 95 yards in 12 plays, taking a 35-21 lead on Murray's 4-yard pass to Chris Conley, and North Texas didn't threaten Georgia's lead again.
“We were on the sideline, and I was like, 'Dang it's close, man,'” Matthews said. “I swear, [defensive line coach Chris Wilson] was like, 'Man, we need to create some turnovers.' It just stuck in my head that we need to create turnovers. He said we need an alpha dog on the defense, somebody that's going to lead the team and get the team pumped up. I was like, 'Man, I want that to be me, so I feel like I need to go out and make a play.'”
There were plenty of offensive highlights to go around.
Murray connected with wideout Reggie Davis on a 98-yard touchdown pass -- the longest pass play in school history, Murray's 100th career touchdown pass and the freshman's first career reception, no less -- and finished the day with 408 yards and three touchdown passes, plus a 1-yard rushing score.
Murray also passed David Greene to become Georgia's career total offense leader with 11,352 career yards. He is third in SEC history behind Florida's Tim Tebow (12,232) and Chris Leak (11,380).
“Really, it's a huge honor. Those are some studs right there, so just to be alongside those guys is a great feeling,” Murray said. “But most importantly it was a great win today. The team played great. We had some rough patches, but I really loved the way we were able to fight through it.”
Records and special-teams mishaps aside, the big story in Saturday's win was that Georgia's defense provided its first competent outing of the season. North Texas had just two offensive plays that covered 20 yards or more, failed to move the ball on the ground and saw its quarterbacks repeatedly hammered by oncoming Georgia rushers.
“Every time [Thompson] threw it away, I decided next time I was going to hit him even harder,” said outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins, who had two of the Bulldogs' 10 tackles for negative yardage. “Every time we hit him, two or three times he said, 'Oh [no],' because he was scared at times. But when you get hit that many times, I would be too.”
After surrendering an average of 460.5 yards per game against Clemson and South Carolina to open the season -- and with LSU preparing to visit next Saturday -- this was exactly what Grantham's defense needed, even if the final score was closer than one might have expected beforehand.
“I feel like this is something that we really enjoyed,” Jenkins said. “It showed the younger guys and just showed the nation how we can play when we all click and what our defense is going to be like in the future.”
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