NCF Nation: Mike Bobo
South Carolina quarterback Dylan Thompson thought he had just ended the game.
With 5:24 left in the fourth quarter, and the Gamecocks clinging to a 38-35 lead over sixth-ranked Georgia, Thompson gift wrapped an interception for Georgia cornerback Damian Swann. The veteran defensive back scooted toward the end zone and an illegal block on the Gamecocks gave Georgia the ball at South Carolina's 4-yard line after Swann was eventually tackled.
No one could possibly judge Thompson's immediate assumption about the outcome of the game. With Georgia holding the nation's best player -- running back Todd Gurley -- in its backfield, you just knew that the Dawgs would pull ahead.
Minutes later, the Gamecocks were celebrating and rushing through their own set of hedges in the end zone to mob their fantastic student section.
"We were meant to win this game, and Georgia was not," said South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier, who improved to 16-6 all-time against Georgia.
That might be true, and though there were a lot of questionable calls and no-calls that helped the Gamecocks along the way (has anyone found the phantom hold that took away the early 54-yard Gurley touchdown?), not giving Gurley, who had 128 rushing yards to that point, the ball inside the 5 was a mistake of epic proportions. Everyone in the stadium expected No. 3 to get the ball, and he should have. Even if South Carolina had all 11 defenders stacked in the box, the first -- and only -- call you have to start the drive is to hand it to the best and toughest running back in the entire country.
Instead, Georgia gambled with the pass and Mason's penalty moved the Dawgs back 10 yards. Georgia eventually had to settle for a field-goal attempt that was missed.
"If I had to do it again we would’ve hammered it," Georgia coach Mark Richt said after the game.
Bobo wasn't made available to the media after the game.
At least Richt knows it wasn't the right call, but there is nothing that can be done about it now. You learn and move on, but this one will sting. There will be a lot of finger-pointing by fans, as the Bulldogs dive into the teeth of conference season. And this play could come back to haunt the Bulldogs if they don't make it to Atlanta for the SEC title game in December.
Forget all the craziness that certainly didn't help Georgia on Saturday, that first-down call will leave a sick feeling in Athens for months if the Bulldogs continue to look up in the SEC East standings.
We don't know if Gurley, who had already made a handful of dazzling/gritty plays before that drive even began, would have punched the ball in on first down, but he was without a doubt the best option in that situation.
ATHENS, Ga. – Georgia quarterback Hutson Mason sits in a faintly lit meeting room deep inside Butts-Mehre Heritage Hall, the Bulldogs' athletic facility/sports museum, reflecting on the past and focusing on the future.
His eyes show purpose as he discusses the season ahead while mentally gearing up for a late spring practice a couple of hours away.
While the present means more reps, and more rhythm inside offensive coordinator Mike Bobo’s offense, Mason can’t help but push his brain full throttle toward the fall.
“When you get one shot, you get one opportunity, you want to make sure that you do everything right,” Mason told ESPN.com in early April. “You want to make sure that you don’t have any regrets because I don’t get four years. I don’t have time to get my feet wet. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I wanted to be remembered as a champion.”
Mason wasn’t near the star Murray was coming out of high school and he won’t sniff his college career. He's fully aware, but that didn’t deter him from having a strong spring or setting high 2014 goals.
"I know I have a year left, but it’s hard to realize that, 'Man, you’re the starting quarterback at UGA,'" said Mason, who has 1,324 passing yards and eight touchdowns in his career.
“You gotta grab the bull by the horns, you gotta figure out the problems, you gotta figure out what we’re good at and you gotta win.”
An easily missed, self-described “weak, frail” prospect from Lassiter High in Marietta, Ga., Mason said he had only one scholarship offer (Georgia Southern) heading into his senior year after Iowa pulled its offer.
When Mason started winning (12-1) and finished the season with a Georgia state record 4,560 passing yards and 54 touchdowns and Lassiter’s first-ever region championship, Mississippi State and Virginia offered, but he wanted UGA.
Mason’s "real quick release" from his weaker arm only intrigued Bobo the spring before his senior year, but his summer improvements at one of Georgia’s camps ramped up interest, Bobo said. Still, Georgia wasn’t planning on signing a quarterback in its 2010 class.
That changed after Mason’s senior season -- which showed Bobo the moxie, instincts and composure he once saw in former Georgia quarterback David Greene -- earned him a scholarship.
Mason then dealt with a "roller coaster of emotions" while he sat behind Murray. He prepared like the starter, talked like a starter, but wasn’t seeing enough field action. It would have been easier if Mason felt he wasn’t SEC material, but he believed he was more than capable of leading the Dawgs.
He approached coach Mark Richt twice about transferring, once after the 2011 season and a year later, after Murray decided to return for a fifth year.
“I was putting in just as much work that Aaron was, and there was really no reward for it,” Mason said. “That was the hardest part to swallow. You were doing everything, but weren’t really getting to go out there and do what you have fun doing.”
After some soul searching, Mason had one overwhelming feeling, as his heart battled his pride: He was a Georgia boy playing for the state's best football program. He wanted a real UGA legacy.
“My heart was always stuck at UGA, and a lot of times I wanted to get past that and I wanted to tell myself to move on,” he said.
“I honestly believe that was God’s plan. My path was just a little different and funky. ... Everything I’ve been waiting for, every opportunity is here.”
It’s there if Mason can leave spring and evolve. He’s always been considered a leader, but leading summer workouts and getting players to show up was always Murray’s deal. This offense and this team are in his hands.
“It’s on him now, so this summer is going to be very huge for our offensive football team getting ready for next year because we [had] a lot of pieces missing [this spring] and Hutson’s got to be a big part of that,” Bobo said.
The good news for Mason is that he’s never shied away from leadership. Naturally outspoken, Mason was very vocal with teammates this spring. He called guys out, raised his voice. There was no switch to flip, he was just himself.
And who he is ain't bad. Mason isn’t as crisp a passer as Murray, but Bobo said he knows how to beat defenses better at times when it comes to extending plays. His imperfections sometimes give him an advantage when things break down.
We saw glimpses of that when he replaced Murray (ACL injury) late last season, throwing for 808 yards and four touchdowns with two interceptions in three games, and during a fine spring game performance (241 yards, one touchdown).
He’ll also have a slew of offensive weapons returning this fall to help, starting with Heisman Trophy candidate Todd Gurley and veteran receivers.
“I don’t have to be a Heisman Trophy winner, I just have to figure out how to get these guys the ball and they’ll do the rest,” Mason said.
Getting here has been long, draining, and worth it for Mason. There’s no reason for him to let up now.
“He’s progressed beautifully,” receiver Chris Conley said.
“Once he becomes consistent at realizing that he is the guy and that everyone is behind him, then he’s going to blow some people’s minds because he can make all those throws.”
The usual sledgehammer of a player -- so used to ramming through and trampling defenders – felt frail and out of shape during his first few spring practices. That came after he returned from complications stemming from a nagging ankle injury that plagued him for most of the 2013 season.
“The first three practices, every time somebody touched me I kept falling to the ground,” Gurley told ESPN.com last week. “… My legs were just weak.
Gurley, who has rushed for 2,374 career yards in two seasons with the Bulldogs, is a tank whose human side has failed him at times. He was held out of postseason workouts and drills as he tried to recover from a 15-inch high ankle sprain he originally suffered at the end of September in a back-and-forth win over LSU.
“That game, I felt perfect,” Gurley said with a hint of bitterness in his tone. “I felt perfect running and I was the right size and [had the right] speed. I felt like I was going to have one of the best games of my life. When it happened, I was like, ‘Dang.’”
Gurley missed three straight games after that -- a stretch in which Georgia went 1-2 -- and hasn’t been 100 percent since. A leaner Gurley hobbled into spring practice, but eyebrows were raised at the sense that Gurley wasn’t pushing himself hard enough and that his desire wasn’t there.
“The really great players, they have to love to practice,” offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said.
“None of [them] has arrived. You have to work. You’re either going to get better or worse every day; you’re not going to stay the same. Him going out there and trying to get better every day is going to make him and us better.”
Gurley admits his energy was lacking. Spring practice wasn’t pressing or exciting. But the coaches needed more from Gurley, and a conversation between Gurley and head coach Mark Richt a week before the Bulldogs’ spring game helped deliver that.
“Even though he may feel that way, he still has to give effort on a daily basis to become great,” Richt said of Gurley’s early spring attitude. “Those were some of the things we talked about, and he was awesome with it and did well.”
Gurley showed more effort during the final week, pushing his two-hour practices to the limit, before capping the spring with 70 total yards of offense and a touchdown in Georgia’s spring game. His touches were limited, but he ran with fire and purpose. He pounded his teammates and fought for extra yards.
“Everything’s starting to get better, slowly but surely,” Gurley said. “It’s been a while since I’ve been healthy, but it’s slowly getting there.”
When Gurley is at his best, he’s in a class of his own. It’s rare for someone with his size (6-foot-1, 232 pounds) to cut and explode like he does. Gurley punishes defenders with his strength and embarrasses them with his moves and breakaway speed. He’d easily have more than just 13 career 100-plus-yard rushing games if his body would cooperate.
But Gurley’s physical side is only part of what could make him a truly special back. The way he carries himself and how he instructs those around him will go a long way as well.
This spring, his coaches pushed him to bring more energy and leadership. More of a leader by example, Gurley said he opened his mouth this spring. He got more serious and wanted to make sure younger players followed him for the right reasons.
“This Todd is doing a better job of leading,” quarterback Hutson Mason said. “We feel like as long as he’s in shape, he’s healthy and he’s strong, he’s the best back in the country.”
Aaron Murray is gone. Keith Marshall’s status is still up in the air after that devastating ACL injury. The spotlight is fixed on Gurley more than ever before, and he says he’s ready to shine even brighter in a year that could be his last in Athens.
That idea has served as a distraction. Gurley equates this upcoming season to his senior year in high school when some around him told him not to work as hard because he was already headed to college. Save his body, they said.
It makes sense to some, but that’s not Gurley’s concern, he said. He doesn’t want to take time or plays off to save up for the NFL. Gurley has more to prove. He wants more yards. He wants records. And he wants wins and at least one championship.
Resting won’t bring any of that.
“That’s never been the case for me,” Gurley said. “The NFL isn’t going anywhere. It’s not like I’m going to be getting drafted [this fall]. I just have to make sure I’m focused on now and getting better every day so that can help me out for my future and basically doing it for my team.”
ATHENS, Ga. -- Georgia's period of mourning over Aaron Murray's season-ending knee injury can't last long. The Bulldogs face rival Georgia Tech in six days -- and for the first time since 2009, they'll do it with someone other than Murray under center.
Once considered the Bulldogs' quarterback in waiting for 2014 -- after Murray, the SEC's all-time leading passer, departed for the NFL -- Hutson Mason's time is now, and that isn't as much of a cause for concern as one might expect.
“I think the whole team is confident in him,” Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said after Saturday's 59-17 win against Kentucky. “He's been preparing for four years now for his moment. His moment's just come a little earlier than we thought it might. I know he's ready, and I know everybody believes in him.”
Now, he's getting an early tryout for the gig, with an opportunity to make his first career start against Georgia Tech and then to lead the offense once again in the Bulldogs' bowl game.
“I'm going to watch the game tomorrow and then start preparing for Tech,” Mason said after completing 13 of 19 passes for 189 yards and a touchdown, plus rushing for another score, against Kentucky. “I don't think anything in my preparation's going to change because I've been preparing like I've been the starter the whole year, and I think that's what's going to help me. And I don't have a lot of game-time experience, but I'm an older guy and I've been here a while and I know my teammates believe in me, and that's what's the most important thing.”
Georgia's offense didn't miss a beat on Saturday after Mason replaced Murray, who injured the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee after taking a big hit from Kentucky's Za'Darius Smith in the second quarter on Saturday. The Bulldogs scored touchdowns on their first four drives with Mason under center, and he capped his night with a field-goal drive before giving way to third-string quarterback Faton Bauta late in the blowout win.
The Bulldogs generated 309 yards in 37 plays with Mason in at QB against Kentucky, good for an average of 8.35 yards per play.
“When he's at practice, there's no drop-off when he comes in,” senior offensive guard Chris Burnette said. “He knows exactly what to do, has a great skillset, is a great leader. We know what he's bringing to the table, and he knows what we're bringing to the table so I think we're able to feed off of each other and be able to do well.”
There is a major difference between executing in practice and executing in a game, however, and Mason has only 11 games of experience -- almost all of which came in mop-up duty during blowouts. He didn't have time to over-think his role while replacing Murray on Saturday, but now he will be the center of attention for the first time during the run-up to a game against perhaps Georgia's biggest rival.
He said the number of close games Georgia played this season, with Murray playing the entire time, made him sometimes question the importance of preparing. He's obviously glad he continued to put in the work each week now, though.
“That's the nature of being a backup -- you've always got to be ready when your number's called on, especially with the way we've played this year,” Mason said. “There's many times through the week I'm like, 'Should I even prepare?' Because I've got voices in my head telling me, 'Should I prepare? I might not play. Is this worth it?' And it just goes to show you, always prepare like you're going to play because you never know when it's going to come.”
Murray's setback only exacerbates the Bulldogs' injury woes in a season where they have been especially prevalent. Georgia lost receiver Malcolm Mitchell to an ACL injury on the second series of the season -- he was celebrating a 75-yard Todd Gurley touchdown run when the injury occurred -- and tailback Keith Marshall and receiver Justin Scott-Wesley both went down with additional ACL tears during a midseason win against Tennessee.
Offensive weapons Gurley, Chris Conley, Michael Bennett and Jay Rome have also been knocked out of the lineup for multiple games, but Murray's seems like the most painful after he returned for his senior season only to suffer an injury near the very end. It will prevent him from participating in a postseason all-star game or at the NFL combine.
Georgia, however, must quickly pick up the pieces with Mason at quarterback, much like it did when its starting quarterback left his final home game with a devastating injury.
“I was proud of the way [Mason] played and proud of the way the other guys picked it up when Aaron went down,” Bobo said. “I feel for Aaron on senior night to get hurt with as much as he's invested in the program and everything he's done. But he played great again while he was out there -- just another phenomenal night for him.”
“Keep them boys believing, man,” D.J. Shockley's message read. “Make them answer the bell. This is your legacy. Remember that: how do I want to be remembered when things get a little tough.”
He desperately needed to hear Shockley's message, and was so appreciative that he saved the text as the screen saver on his cell phone so that it would be a constant reminder of his role as a team leader.
“It's the first thing I see every morning when I hit my phone,” Murray said. “I look at it and that little thing right there just meant the world to me. It's awesome to get those kind of supporting text messages from him and [David] Greene and other guys who have played here.”
Circle of support
Murray has a large circle of supporters, ranging from family to teammates to quarterbacks across the country with whom he has formed a bond at various events. But he has a special relationship with those who played quarterback at Georgia before him -- Shockley and Greene, in particular -- because he had the foresight to reach out before taking his first college snap.
“He embraced the guys that have come before him and wanted us to just kind of help him at the very beginning, work with him,” Greene said. “It wasn't ever a relationship where we were talking every day or anything like that. It was more of like a big brother kind of role, I guess. It wasn't like we touched base that often.
““But during the season at times, like after this weekend [when Auburn spoiled a fourth-quarter comeback by scoring the game-winning touchdown with 25 seconds to play], I definitely shot him a text and basically just said, 'Look, I admire the way you play the game.' As a former player that knows what it's like to be in those situations, as much adversity as he faced, you could tell that he wore his heart on his sleeve. He wanted that game and he fought tooth-and-nail to get it back, and he's done that his whole career.”
If you just look at stats, you say, 'Since he's been quarterback, Georgia has not won a big game.' I get it, I agree. But does it mean that I could win the big game because when we played in the SEC championship, we only gave up three points [to Arkansas in 2002]? Does that mean that I could win the big game and he couldn't? No, of course not. It's not fair to compare the two. ... The way that he has played this year I think has completely erased any doubt of whether or not he could play big in big moments.” -- Former Georgia QB David Greene
There are several reasons why Georgia's ex-quarterbacks have developed relationships with the current players on the roster.
One is that the Bulldogs have had the same quarterback-centric head coach and position coach, Mark Richt and Mike Bobo, for the last 13 seasons, which helps maintain continuity between generations. Another is an event that Richt brought from Florida State -- the “Quarterback Classic” -- which serves as a reunion between Richt's ex-Seminoles quarterbacks and current and former Bulldogs signal-callers.
While Murray joked that there is heated competition in events like ping pong, bowling, air hockey, bocce ball and horseshoes, he said that it provided a tremendous outlet.
“I think that's one of the best times of the year, getting together with those guys and playing all these crazy games that only the old guys win because they know how to play them,” Murray said.
Bobo agreed on its value.
“It's a chance for those quarterbacks to meet those older guys and they get contact info from them and they kind of stay in touch," he said. "Greene and Shockley have been real good about staying in touch with all those guys."
With 108 passing yards Saturday against Kentucky -- Murray's final home start as a Georgia player -- he can become the first quarterback in SEC history to pass for 3,000 yards in all four seasons. He's already the only one to do it three times.
He owns the SEC career records for passing yards, total offense, touchdown passes and completions, and could break the marks for pass attempts and touchdown responsibility before season's end.
Statistics are not the only way we measure quarterbacks, though. The glaring hole in Murray's resume is that, unlike Greene (2002) and Shockley (2005), he never won a conference title. It's a painful reality, particularly because of last season's near-miss against Alabama in the SEC championship game, where Murray and the Bulldogs fell just short of a spot in the BCS title game.
“There's also a piece of me that feels a little bad for him because I think there's been a couple of times throughout his career where he's kind of had a legacy moment kind of taken away from him,” Greene said.
Murray would be the first to point out the things he should have done better in games that didn't turn out in Georgia's favor, but Greene is quick to offer a counterpoint of sorts.
Consider the brilliance with which Murray performed in wins against LSU and South Carolina, how he led the last-minute comeback to force overtime against Tennessee with nearly all of his most important playmakers sidelined by injuries, how he dove for the go-ahead touchdown against Auburn, and the argument that he shrinks under the spotlight seems silly.
“If you just look at stats, you say, 'Since he's been quarterback, Georgia has not won a big game.' I get it, I agree,” Greene said. “But does it mean that I could win the big game because when we played in the SEC championship, we only gave up three points [to Arkansas in 2002]? Does that mean that I could win the big game and he couldn't? No, of course not. It's not fair to compare the two. … The way that he has played this year I think has completely erased any doubt of whether or not he could play big in big moments.”
Murray has Shockley have been there. Better than nearly anyone else, they understand the demands Murray faced for the last four seasons – and they remain impressed by how he thrived under those circumstances.
“I think people will say he was arguably one of the best quarterbacks to play at the University of Georgia, but … There's an asterisk right there. They didn't get that championship and that kind of stuff,” Shockley said. “But in my book, he's No. 1. He's done it all. The numbers don't lie. He's put them in position, and obviously he can't play defense and special teams. He's definitely had a great career and worthy of being one of the best.”
Well, Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo has been home, aside from one season he spent at Jacksonville State in 2000 as an assistant coach, ever since playing quarterback for the Bulldogs from 1994-97.
He’s a rarity these days in college football. He’s one of the few former players that are now assistant coaches at their alma maters.
Bobo, 39, is in his 19th season at Georgia as a player, graduate assistant or assistant coach. He and Kentucky offensive coordinator Neal Brown are the only two coaches in the SEC calling plays at the school in which they played, although Brown finished his college career at Massachusetts.
While Bobo will always be a Dawg at heart, he didn’t grow up dreaming about playing for Georgia, and when his playing career ended in 1997, it wasn’t necessarily his goal to coach at Georgia.
It just sort of happened that way.
The son of a legendary high school coach in the state of Georgia, George Bobo, the younger Bobo just knew that he wanted to coach. He spent a couple of seasons at Georgia as an administrative assistant and graduate assistant under his old coach, Jim Donnan, and then went to Jacksonville State in 2000 to coach quarterbacks.
In Bobo’s mind, his days at Georgia were probably in his rear-view mirror until Mark Richt came along in 2001.
“When coach Richt called me up and wanted to talk, people were saying that he might ask me to come back and be a GA, and I’d already been a GA here for two years. I was like, ‘I’m big time. I’m coaching my position (quarterbacks) here at Jacksonville State. I’m not coming back as a GA,’” Bobo joked.
But when he met Richt, his tune quickly changed.
“It wasn’t about football,” Bobo recalled. “It was about my life, his life, family, how he wanted to treat the players. I was like, ‘I’ve got to get around this guy. If I really want to get into coaching, I need to be around a guy like this, just his passion for life and players.’
“My dad always said, ‘Whatever you do, surround yourself with good people,’ and I decided that I was going to go work for this guy no matter what.”
That first season, Bobo was basically a full-time graduate assistant. But as he gained more of Richt’s confidence, his role increased. In 2007, Bobo was promoted to offensive coordinator and replaced Richt as the Bulldogs’ play-caller.
It takes a special person to call plays at any big-time school. But when you’re one of their own, the criticism and second-guessing can really get nasty. Bobo, despite the Bulldogs’ offensive success on his watch, has been a frequent target of the fans.
He learned a long time ago to develop a thick skin.
“The thing that matters to me is that when I walk into that room, the players believe in what we’re doing,” Bobo said. “If they believe in that and believe in me, we’ve got a chance. And I’ve never felt that those guys don’t believe.
“If you let the outside noise get to you, it will eat you alive.”
The truth is that Bobo has probably been one of the more under-appreciated offensive coordinators in college football. Since becoming coordinator, Georgia has averaged more than 30 points per game every season but 2009 when the Bulldogs averaged 28.9.
The 2012 Georgia offense scored a school-record 529 points and racked up more than 40 in eight games. The Dawgs also set a school record in 2012 with 37.8 points per game, 37 touchdown passes, 6,547 total yards and 72 touchdowns scored.
Even this season with all the injuries, Georgia is still fourth in the SEC in total offense with an average of 478.6 yards per game (22nd nationally) and averaging 35.6 points per game.
More importantly, the Bulldogs can stay alive in the Eastern Division race Saturday with a win at No. 7 Auburn.
“The thing you keep coming back to is that this is your school and your state, and there’s an incredible amount of pride associated with being able to represent both every day when I come to work,” Bobo said.
That doesn’t mean he hasn’t had opportunities to leave.
A year ago, Virginia Tech tried to hire him and actually sent a plane to Athens to pick him up, but Bobo never got on it. Georgia rewarded him with a $240,000 raise and three-year contract, and he now ranks among the highest-paid offensive coordinators in the league.
Football isn’t the only thing that’s kept Bobo in Athens. He and his wife, Lainie, have five kids under the age of 10, including triplets, and he said it’s impossible to put a price on being able to raise your family in the same place, especially in the volatile world of coaching.
Sure, there have been times that he’s cast a wandering eye around the college football landscape and asked himself if he were limiting his opportunities by staying in the same place for so long. But he always arrives back at the same answer.
“You might look around and think, ‘I should be doing this or doing that or maybe wonder what it would be like to go somewhere else,’” Bobo said. “But at the end of the day, what we’ve got here is hard to beat.”
Since taking over as Georgia's quarterback in 2010, there has been a seemingly endless parade of skill players in and out of the Bulldogs' offensive lineup -- from A.J. Green's four-game absence to open Murray's freshman season, to regular tailback shuffling in 2011, to debilitating injuries at receiver last season, to considerable upheaval over the last two weeks of this season.
And he needs to be.
In Saturday's noon ET game against No. 25 Missouri (5-0, 1-0 SEC) Murray must deal with his biggest personnel challenge to date. With Georgia already without Malcolm Mitchell, who tore his ACL in the opener against Clemson, the Bulldogs lost two more key wideouts, Justin Scott-Wesley and Michael Bennett, last week against Tennessee. Tailback Keith Marshall also went down with a season-ending knee injury last Saturday, joining fellow star tailback Todd Gurley on the sidelines as the Bulldogs' high-scoring offense started to sputter without so many key pieces.
“I would say it affected not only the offense, but the team,” fullback Quayvon Hicks said. “It was players that are not only playmakers on the field, but great teammates. Losing them and knowing that they're not going to be out there, it's something that you've got to just suck it up and keep going.”
Murray and No. 7 Georgia (4-1, 3-0) barely salvaged the game, forcing overtime with a last-minute touchdown and winning 34-31 with a field goal in the extra session. The lone constant in Georgia's lineup over the last three-plus seasons, Murray's experience adjusting to the personnel around him might have been the difference in the outcome.
“You never really can truly practice everything that might happen in a game,” Bobo said. “So I think it's been a lot of experience for Aaron, obviously, to have to go through that and the game plan altered in the middle of a game. And then obviously myself with calling plays. You've just got to adjust. That's football, and I think any time you've got experience to draw back from instead of maybe something that you practiced, it's always beneficial.”
Injuries will force the Bulldogs to do some major adjusting over at least the next couple of weeks. Georgia coach Mark Richt said Gurley remains doubtful to play against Missouri and Bennett is probably out until at least the Nov. 2 game against Florida.
That leaves Bulldogs with little to no experience suddenly in the mix for playing time. Richt has mentioned walk-ons Kenny Towns and Michael Erdman as possible fill-ins at receiver, along with redshirt freshman Blake Tibbs, who has yet to appear in a game.
The running game could once again be in the hands of a group of true freshmen if Gurley is unable to go. It might even mean that A.J. Turman -- a clear redshirt candidate before Marshall's injury made that outcome less of a certainty -- joins fellow freshmen J.J. Green and Brendan Douglas in the backfield.
“[Turman] seems to be excited about getting reps with the ones or twos or whatever reps that he's getting right now,” Richt said. “He doesn't look like a guy who's bummed out about an opportunity, a possible opportunity. He seems to be a guy who's kind of anxious for it, so that helps.”
Georgia's running game could be a key factor in Saturday's game. The Bulldogs' still-developing defense will have its hands full with a Missouri offense that is one of only five in the country averaging at least 255 yards on the ground and 285 through the air. The UGA backs' ability to extend drives and keep the defense on the sideline will almost certainly be of major importance, and last year's game against the Tigers was not especially encouraging in that department.
Missouri actually outgained Georgia 371 yards to 355 last year and limited the Bulldogs' running game to just 113 yards -- 44 of which came on a single Gurley run. Georgia needs a more productive performance from Green, Douglas and the other backs if Gurley isn't there to power the Bulldogs' running game.
Otherwise, Georgia will lean more heavily on the injury-depleted receiving corps led by Chris Conley -- who would have redshirted in 2011 if not for injuries that led to his debut in the fourth game of that season.
In other words, Murray is far from the only offensive player on the roster who had to adapt on the fly because of personnel changes.
“It's definitely caused us to be mature,” Conley said. “And for guys to learn how to play in that situation, it's something that you're not comfortable doing naturally. Over the last couple of years, we've had multiple guys who had to become comfortable doing that -- stepping up, learning things on the fly, going in on a Saturday like they've been doing it all along.”
Georgia needs that trend to continue Saturday with some of the new faces in the lineup and old faces who will attempt new things. If they can handle this adjustment as capably as they have the others over the last couple of seasons, the Bulldogs still might be able to ride out their recent rash of debilitating injuries.
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Aaron Murray's not sure how much more of this he can take.
Then again, this is precisely the reason he came back to Georgia, for moments like this.
A fifth-year senior, who was once branded as the guy who couldn’t win the big one, Murray has made winning an art form this season for No. 6-ranked Georgia, and he engineered yet another thrilling 34-31 overtime win Saturday against Tennessee in Neyland Stadium.
“These are memories we’ll have for the rest of our lives,” Murray said. “When we come back and have reunions and meet up, these are the games we’ll talk about. I’m getting goosebumps just thinking about it.
“We’re five games into the season and made a ton of memories ... and have a lot more to go.”
Murray, who became the SEC’s all-time leader in passing yards, was one of the few in the Georgia locker room not on crutches or ailing in some way Saturday evening on the banks of the Tennessee River.
In Saturday's game alone, the Bulldogs lost tailback Keith Marshall and receivers Michael Bennett and Justin Scott-Wesley to knee injuries. Even punter Collin Barber was knocked out of the game with a concussion.
And after the game, even Georgia coach Mark Richt was sporting a bloody finger after cutting it on a chair while doing his post-game interview.
“I’m not really in the celebrating mood so much, just thankful to escape here with a victory considering what happened,” said Richt, who also took a spill on the sideline during the game after a player crashed into him.
Richt, who lost his top receiver, Malcolm Mitchell, in the opener against Clemson, said he purposefully didn’t talk to Georgia head trainer Ron Courson before meeting with the media.
“I didn’t want to say anything to anybody. I’m just not in the mood to talk about it right now,” said Richt, whose Bulldogs won their third game this season despite giving up 30 or more points.
Georgia (4-1, 3-0 SEC) will know more about the injuries after the players undergo tests, but the fear was that Marshall and Scott-Wesley could be lost for the season. Bennett’s injury may not be as severe, and Richt said Gurley was probably “50-50” for next week’s game against Missouri.
As bummed as Richt was about seeing so many of his players go down with injuries, he was thrilled with his team’s resiliency.
Murray was surgical on the game-tying 75-yard touchdown drive to force overtime, and then Marshall Morgan won it for the Bulldogs with a 42-yard field goal in overtime after missing from 39 yards in the third quarter and making one from 56 yards to open the game.
On Georgia's last drive before the end of regulation, Murray was without his top three receivers and his top two running backs, and his 2-yard touchdown pass to senior Rantavious Wooten was a third-down strike that couldn’t have been thrown any better.
“I talked to Aaron on the phone right before the drive, and there was no panic,” Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said. “He just said, ‘Let’s go do this.’
“Everything that possibly could go wrong was going wrong, players falling out right and left. You’ve got to give [Tennessee] credit. They did a great job against us, but we made enough plays to win.”
The Bulldogs only needed a field goal in overtime after the Vols fumbled the ball at the goal line, resulting in a touchback. Pig Howard lost the ball just short of the goal line while trying to stretch out and get to the pylon. It was called a touchdown on the field, but was overturned by replay.
It was a heartbreaking way for the Vols to lose, but the most convincing statements yet under first-year coach Butch Jones that he has the program headed in the right direction after three consecutive losing seasons.
“This team has become closer than any team I’ve been a part of, and they hurt. But we’re going to keep grinding. That’s the only way I know how to do it,” said Jones, whose Vols went for it on fourth down three different times in the game and converted all three.
The Bulldogs appeared to be in huge trouble after the Vols (3-3, 0-2 SEC) went ahead 31-24 with 1:54 to play.
Neyland Stadium was rocking like the old days, and Georgia was limping -- literally.
“As a quarterback, that’s what you want, the ball in your hands and a chance to lead your team down the field,” Murray said.
And that’s exactly what he did.
Of course, it’s that kind of wherewithal that has defined this program over the last few years. Even with the injuries, the Bulldogs probably shouldn’t have been in a position where they needed a clutch drive just to force overtime, especially after leading 17-3 at the half.
But when adversity has come their way, they’ve responded.
It’s probably fitting that Wooten was the one catching the game-tying touchdown with five seconds left in regulation. He was involved in an automobile accident two years ago that ended his season, and he hadn’t played a whole lot this season prior to Saturday.
“When other guys go down, you just have to step up and make plays,” Wooten said. “You can’t be that guy that doesn’t make the play. That’s what good teams do. We say ‘next man up’ here at Georgia for a reason. We believe in that.”
The obvious question now: Can the Bulldogs continue winning these thrill-a-minute games, and probably more importantly, can they keep winning when they’re giving up 30-plus points every game?
“We know it’s on the defense to keep getting better and keep growing,” Georgia outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins said. “This was such an emotional win, a tough win, a win that cost us a lot of good players. But what matters is that this team found a way to win it, and that’s what we’re going to keep doing.”
As Murray walked off the field on Saturday, he looked at Richt and joked that he was aging in dog years.
“I’ve aged about 10 years in these last two or three weeks,” said Murray, who threw three touchdown passes and also had a 57-yard run to set up a touchdown. “This team just continues to grow up and mature every week.”
And continues to hang around in the national championship mix despite the odds and despite what now appears to be some key players watching from the sideline the rest of the way.
“This senior class has been through a lot. All the seniors and juniors have done a great job of leading this team and pushing this team,” Murray said. “We understand what losing seasons feel like. We understand what it takes to come back from an 0-2 start and what it takes to come back from a huge loss to South Carolina.
“We’ve been through it all, and we’ve never lost focus.”
ATHENS, Ga. -- Minutes after Georgia players sprinted into their locker room following a triumphant 44-41 back-and-forth win over LSU, offensive coordinator Mike Bobo instructed them to get right back on the playing field.
Drenched in sweat and oozing that sweaty odor of victory, the Bulldogs rushed the field for a curtain call in front of a nearly filled stadium with fans too elated to leave. Players threw fists in the air, high-fived fans over the hedges lining the field and smiled boyish smiles as they gave Sanford Stadium half of a victory lap.
It was a gutty win at the end of a bloody month of September, but it moved the Bulldogs, who now sit at 2-0 in SEC play, even closer to their third straight SEC championship appearance in Atlanta.
"I'm just happy for everyone -- players, the coaching staff," said quarterback Aaron Murray, who threw for 298 yards and four touchdowns with an interception Saturday. "It was a special moment being in this locker room afterwards with the guys celebrating, and then being on the field afterwards with the fans was awesome."
The Bulldogs aren't perfect. They won't be beating their chests later thinking they're invincible, but they have to feel pretty good about their odds of making it back to Atlanta. South Carolina needs Georgia to lose two conference games if it wants a chance at the East. Florida is banged up and sporting another struggling offense. Vanderbilt has two SEC losses, while Tennessee and Kentucky have new coaches and the same old problems.
Unless there's a real shocker, and Missouri -- which is the only East team yet to play a conference game -- flies through SEC play this year, the East is Georgia's to lose.
We know the Bulldogs are going to give up points (lots of them), we know they're going to give up yards (tons of them) and we know they're going to miss tackles (way too many of them), but we also know that the offense is going to bail them out. The offense is going to score and move a lot each week.
The Bulldogs are averaging 554 yards and more than 41 points per game. Against South Carolina and LSU, the Bulldogs piled up 1,030 yards and 85 points. The toughest remaining test for this offense waits in Jacksonville, Fla., when Georgia takes on rival Florida. The Gators own one of the nation's best defenses, and it's the only SEC defense remaining for the Dawgs giving up fewer than 360 yards of offense per game.
But it's not like Florida's offense is blowing anyone away, while Georgia proved once again that it can line up and score when it needs to.
"We're ready. We're here, man," wide receiver Justin Scott-Wesley said. "We can take on anybody, anytime.
"We'll take anybody, anywhere."
The offense showed exactly that when it didn't miss a beat when Keith Marshall filled in for Todd Gurley after Gurley sustained an ankle injury before the half. It showed it again after LSU took a 41-37 lead with 4:14 remaining in the fourth quarter. The Bulldogs just marched 75 yards on just six plays, including a dagger of a 25-yard touchdown catch by Scott-Wesley.
"It was pretty cool, man," Scott-Wesley said of his touchdown. "I just wanted to put the nail in the coffin for my team and move on to the next one."
And the next one is Tennessee, then Vanderbilt and then Florida. After that, a Nov. 16 trip to Auburn will stand as the Bulldogs' final real test for a shot at the East. After a brutal first month of football that featured three top-10 matchups -- Clemson, South Carolina and LSU -- the Bulldogs get a bit of a breather.
"I'm glad we got that over with," linebacker Jordan Jenkins said. "Our future is only going to get brighter.
"It's a race to get the East now. We're just paving our road to success."
Again, the East is officially Georgia's to lose, but the Dawgs are being cautious. They were rowdy immediately after the win, but they know a slip-up with a shaky defense could be costly.
"Next week, if we think it's going to be any easier, we're crazy," coach Mark Richt said. "We're going to Knoxville, Tennessee, man. They're going to be fired up. Their fans are going to be ready to go. If we think it's going to be anything less than what we've been living through, we're nuts."
It's still a long season, but Georgia's 2-0 SEC start feels like a chokehold on the rest of the East. With the caliber of teams the Bulldogs have already played, Georgia has shown it has matured and developed. That's a recipe for success, and a bad combination for the rest of the division.
"We've been through a lot so far these first four games," Murray said. "We've grown was a team, we've matured a lot and we're a lot better off right now than we were a month ago."
Georgia's quarterback had just completed another brilliant performance that allowed the Bulldogs to escape the most grueling opening month in school history – with games against three top-10 opponents, and the Bulldogs winning two – and helped his team remain a legitimate national championship contender.
That pride was evident throughout Sanford Stadium in the electric celebration that followed Georgia's fourth-down stop when a Zach Mettenberger pass fell incomplete at midfield. Mettenberger and LSU's offense produced in such situations over and over throughout the game, but the Bulldogs forced four consecutive incompletions to close out one of their biggest home wins in years.
“We knew if we stopped them from converting on third down, we would win the game,” said Georgia defensive lineman Chris Mayes, who recorded his first career start and first career sack against LSU. “At the end, we finally did that on third and fourth down and it got us a big team win.”
Georgia coach Mark Richt's uncharacteristically emotional postgame celebration showed that he was as caught up in the moment as his players and fans. Richt walked from corner to corner of the field, repeatedly raising his arms in victory with the home fans cheering enthusiastically each time.
“You can't ask for anything better than what happened today,” Richt said. “It just showed how great the University of Georgia can be.”
And the inside of the locker room looked like a disaster area, covered in water and other debris – the remnants of a raucous postgame celebration that Georgia might typically reserve for a win that clinched a division championship. Once they finished celebrating in the locker room, the Bulldogs took it back to the field, making a victory lap around the hedges that line the playing surface to slap hands with the thousands of fans who were still celebrating the win.
“We were in here and [offensive coordinator Mike] Bobo said, 'The fans are still here. You need to go thank them.' It was a great idea, so we went back out and sure enough, they were there,” said receiver Michael Bennett, who caught a pair of touchdown passes.
Georgia's offense once again saved the day despite an outstanding performance by Mettenberger, making his return to the school where he started his college career. LSU's quarterback – whom Richt dismissed from the team in 2010 following an arrest – showed no signs of being adversely affected by the emotions of the day. He went 23-for-37 for 372 yards and three touchdowns and kept LSU's offense afloat when the Tigers' vaunted running game produced only 77 yards on 36 carries.
Mettenberger gashed the Bulldogs' secondary repeatedly on third downs – LSU went 10-for-15 – and converted a 25-yard bullet to Odell Beckham Jr. on third-and-22 at his own 13. That kept alive LSU's go-ahead touchdown drive that ended with Jeremy Hill's 8-yard scoring run that gave the Tigers a 41-37 advantage – their first lead since the first quarter – with 4:14 to play.
That was more than enough time for Georgia's explosive offense to answer, however, as it has almost every time its young defense has put the Bulldogs in a tight spot. That was certainly the case here, but Murray calmly completed all four of his passes on Georgia's ensuing drive, hitting a wide-open Scott-Wesley on the final throw to regain the lead when a less veteran team might have lost its composure in the pressure of the moment.
“I think we're about as composed a group as you can find, from the freshmen to the sophomores to the guys who have been here 12 years like Aaron and I,” said Georgia senior tight end Arthur Lynch, who caught two passes on the final touchdown drive. “We've got guys who aren't afraid of a challenge, which has been a good thing. Especially in this league, I think guys can be a little intimidated. But for us to handle that situation the way we did I think is pretty impressive.”
It was far from a perfect first month for Georgia, particularly on defense. LSU gained 449 yards against a defense that came in allowing 388.7 per game (11th in the SEC). Richt reminded reporters after the game that his team is still “very vulnerable to getting whipped if we don't just put it all together,” starting with next week's venture to Tennessee.
But as long as Murray and Georgia's offense function as capably as they did on Saturday, the Bulldogs are going to be awfully difficult to beat. By surviving yet another close call against a top-10 opponent, all of Georgia's preseason goals remain within reach despite the grueling nature of its opening schedule.
“We know if we just continue to win games and continue to put up points, we're going to be in the national championship, bottom line,” Bennett said. “We've just got to keep doing that.”
With Jadeveon Clowney and South Carolina’s fearsome defensive front on deck Saturday, that is not a particularly encouraging sign for the Bulldogs. But Georgia’s linemen realize they can’t allow themselves to think that way.
Such a philosophy might not be particularly useful for Georgia’s coaching staff, which knows it must frequently commit more than one blocker to Clowney -- a player widely viewed as one of the top pro prospects in college football.
Clowney got off to an unimpressive start in last Thursday’s win against North Carolina, but he has made his impression felt in two games against Georgia to date.
As a freshman in 2011, he twice sacked Bulldogs quarterback Aaron Murray and forced Murray into a fumble that teammate Melvin Ingram recovered for the win-clinching touchdown late in a 45-42 South Carolina victory. Last season, Clowney had two tackles for a loss and a sack as the Gamecocks harassed Murray into the lowest single-game QBR (8.4, when his season average was 78.2, 13th-best in the nation) of his college career.
“Whatever happened last year is last year,” said Georgia’s Kenarious Gates, who struggled mightily against Clowney a season ago. “The thing about me is I learned to move on and focus on what’s ahead of me.”
What’s ahead is a chance for redemption, not just for Gates, but for an entire offensive line that turned in an embarrassing effort in last season’s 35-7 loss to the Gamecocks. But it’s unclear who will line up on the edge to defend against Clowney, Chaz Sutton and South Carolina’s other pass rushers.
Friend experimented with several lineups in Saturday’s opener, to mixed results at best. While Georgia generated more first downs, rushing yards and passing yards, averaged more yards per play and led in time of possession, the line also committed a handful of costly penalties and surrendered four sacks -- more than in any game last year except one, when they allowed five to Ole Miss.
Three of those sacks came in the second quarter, when Clemson’s defense put the clamps on a Georgia offense that moved the ball at will early in the game. Tigers defensive end Vic Beasley zipped around flailing left tackle Gates on one third-down rush to nearly decapitate Murray with a vicious blind-side blow that forced a punt.
On Georgia’s next possession, Stephone Anthony got around right tackle Houston and knocked the ball away from Murray at the Bulldogs’ 20-yard line, forcing a fumble that Clemson’s Spencer Shuey recovered at the 16 to set up a short touchdown drive.
And on the final possession of the first half, Tavaris Barnes blew past Houston -- now playing left tackle -- to take down Murray near midfield and short-circuit Georgia’s attempt to drive for the go-ahead points just before halftime.
Clemson added one more sack on Georgia’s first possession of the second half and the Bulldogs otherwise kept Murray upright. Some key damage had already been done, however, and Georgia’s offense never regained its early momentum.
“We definitely had our ups and downs, but at the end of the day it’s a loss and Aaron got his jersey dirty,” Houston said.
Gates lost weight in the offseason, partially out of a desire to be quicker on his feet so he could more easily contend with speed rushers like Beasley and Clowney.
“I felt like that would make me a better player -- lighter on my feet and quicker and it’s lighter on my knees, as well,” Gates said last week. “I feel like doing it for me, doing it for the team, it would make me a more athletic player. I want to be that guy, and overall it’s been helpful.”
Clowney presents the biggest challenge of the season for Georgia’s pass protectors, though, and it seems unlikely that Friend and Bulldogs offensive coordinator Mike Bobo will make one player responsible for the Gamecocks star. Count on Georgia to devote tight ends and running backs to Clowney’s side, as well, to assist the tackles against the player who totaled 23.5 tackles for a loss and 13 sacks a season ago.
And as Bulldogs coach Mark Richt pointed out, the Bulldogs will also enjoy the benefit of playing at home, unlike in Saturday’s loss. Georgia relied on silent snap counts because of the noise present in Death Valley, but the friendly confines of Sanford Stadium will allow the Bulldogs to vary their cadences and prevent Clowney and company from jumping the snap count so easily.
“I think the times we got beat in my opinion, we just got beat off the snap,” Richt said. “We’ll have our cadence next week and that will help. If we were at South Carolina, it would be a little bit tougher, but I think it will help when we get off on the cadence.”
CLEMSON, S.C. -- Although it’s easy to point to a botched field goal try as the difference in No. 5 Georgia’s 38-35 loss to No. 8 Clemson on Saturday, the Bulldogs know there was more to it than that.
“I thought we did some good things and we did some things to get you beat,” said Georgia coach Mark Richt, whose team has no time to lick its wounds with a game against No. 6 South Carolina on tap next Saturday. “We’ll find out how good we are next week.”
There were penalties from the Bulldogs on Saturday. One of the nation’s most-penalized teams over the last several years, Georgia had nine for 84 lost yards against Clemson -- including two costly infractions in the fourth quarter that short-circuited the Bulldogs’ comeback attempt.
There were two turnovers by quarterback Aaron Murray -- a fumble and an interception -- in the second quarter that took the wind out of the Georgia offense’s sails after accounting for 218 yards and two touchdowns in the first quarter alone.
And there was a simple lack of execution at some crucial junctures that altered a game the Bulldogs certainly could have won.
“We did a lot of good things tonight, but there were a lot of things that we didn’t do so well -- some first-game mistakes and they ended up costing us there in the game,” said Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo, whose team accumulated 545 yards of total offense, but surrendered four sacks and two turnovers. “But I just told the guys we ran out of time there at the end and it hurts, but we’ve got to look at the tape, we’ve got to correct and we’ve got to get better.”
The sequence that led to the botched field goal was particularly costly. Georgia earned first-and-goal at the Clemson 5 after a 35-yard completion to Chris Conley late in the third quarter. The Bulldogs then ran three straight running plays -- a 2-yard run by Keith Marshall, a 1-yard run by Todd Gurley and a third-down dive for no gain by Quayvon Hicks -- before settling for a 20-yard field goal try by Patrick Beless that would have tied the score at 31-all.
One problem: On his first field goal snap of the season, new snapper Nathan Theus shot the ball high to holder Adam Erickson, who was unable to corral the snap and was forced to fall on it for a 6-yard loss.
That was an enormous letdown after Georgia had battled its way back into the game and failed to gain the equalizer.
“Momentum is a big thing and that was huge momentum for us, a big boost for our guys,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “That turned out to be one of the deciding plays of the game, obviously.”
As were the plays that immediately preceded it, since they could have given Georgia its first lead since Hicks’ 1-yard touchdown run early in the second quarter.
“We had to get points in the red zone coming in and we wanted touchdowns and we weren’t able to do it right there,” Bobo said. “We ran the ball down there and I wanted to keep running it and I’ve got to look at the tape. We just didn’t execute what we had called and unfortunately we didn’t get the three points. That happens. We still had a chance to win after that, so we had our opportunities and just penalties killed us there on the next couple of drives.”
Even after the field goal mistake, Georgia’s defense forced a Clemson three-and-out, with a punt giving Georgia possession at its 43 early in the fourth quarter. The Bulldgos were quickly flagged for a devastating 15-yard penalty for chop blocking, however, and ended up punting.
Clemson scored on the next drive to go up 38-28 midway through the quarter, making a holding penalty that nullified a 14-yard Gurley run on the Dawgs’ ensuing drive even more costly, as another Georgia punt there nearly put the game out of reach.
The Bulldogs drove for a quick touchdown late in the fourth quarter, but when they failed to recover an onside kick and had already used all of their timeouts, Clemson was able to run out the clock and walk away victorious.
“We killed ourselves with penalties tonight,” Murray said. “It’s tough to convert third-and-long. Penalties are a big reason why we lost tonight.”
With the loss, Georgia finds itself in a fairly familiar position, which might have been why there seemed to be little panic within the Bulldog contingent during postgame interviews.
The Bulldogs dropped their first two games of 2011, including their SEC opener against South Carolina, and finished the regular season with a 10-game winning streak. They took a 35-7 pounding last season at South Carolina and once again won out.
Both times they earned a spot in the SEC championship game by claiming the Eastern Division title. And next Saturday will still play a major role in whether they can return to Atlanta for a third straight season, regardless of what happened against Clemson.
“I don’t see anybody in there ready to jump off a bridge or anything,” Richt said. “I think they all know that happens in football if you play a really good football team and you get beat. And if you do, then you move on and you continue to play well and you get better and you make corrections. We’re still learning a lot about this team.”
No. 5 Georgia and No. 8 Clemson will end a 10-year hiatus in their historic rivalry Saturday when the Bulldogs visit Death Valley n in one of the most intriguing matchups of opening weekend.
Let’s examine five key elements involved in a game that could impact this season’s BCS championship chase:
Big-play offenses: Las Vegas is predicting two of the nation’s most-prolific offenses to combine for around 70 points on Saturday night. And research provided by ESPN Stats and Information gives us plenty of reasons to see why many analysts expect a high-scoring game between the Bulldogs and Tigers.
Beyond simple scoring and total offense stats, they both ranked among the nation’s top big-play offenses a season ago. Georgia ranked first nationally or tied for first in touchdowns of at least 20 yards (31), 30 yards (22) and 50 yards (12) and led the nation with an average of 7.09 yards per play.
Clemson, meanwhile, led the nation in completions of 25 yards or more (51) and touchdown passes that covered at least 25 yards (20). Clemson’s Tajh Boyd had 11.2 percent of his passes go for completions of at least 25 yards, which was the highest of any quarterback in the country who attempted at least 150 passes.
Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray led the nation in yards per pass attempt (10.1) and percentage of attempts to gain 20 yards or more (16.1).
Both quarterbacks improved their accuracy on passes of 20-plus yards last season, with Murray completing 46 percent of such throws (an increase of 17.3 percent) and Boyd hitting on 51 percent (an increase of 14 percent).
Will Watkins step up?: With Georgia breaking in a largely rebuilt secondary, this game would seem like a prime opportunity for Clemson’s 2011 All-American receiver Sammy Watkins to exploit the Bulldogs’ youth.
Watkins talked a big game about beating Georgia during the offseason, but will he reclaim his spot as the Tigers’ top receiving target after losing that title last fall to DeAndre Hopkins. Watkins was third nationally in all-purpose yards (2,288) in 2011, but totaled fewer than half as many a year later (1,073). His touchdowns-per-touch ratio dropped from 1-in-9.6 to 1-in-17.8, as well.
Clemson quarterbacks targeted Watkins 44 fewer times (from 123 in 2011 to 79 last year) and his catch (82 to 57), receiving yardage (1,219 to 708) and touchdown (12 to three) totals all dropped severely.
Hopkins led the nation with 11 touchdown catches of 25-plus yards last season, so the Tigers desperately need Watkins to live up to the standard he set in 2011 and replace some of the departed star’s production. Watkins is more than capable, posting 11 TD catches of 25-plus yards in his first two seasons as a Tiger.
Pound the run?: An interesting subplot to Saturday’s game is how Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo will attack Clemson’s defense. The Tigers also have some concerns in the secondary -- this on the heels of surrendering 7.32 yards per pass attempt a season ago. But conventional wisdom seems to dictate that Georgia uses its powerful running game -- paced by All-SEC pick Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall -- to extend drives and provide time for its defense to rest between series against Clemson’s up-tempo offense.
Both players averaged better than 6 yards per carry last season, due in large part to their capabilities as home-run threats. They combined for 12 runs of 25-plus yards, eight of which went for touchdowns. Gurley alone had 27 carries that went at least 15 yards, which tied for fifth in the FBS.
Clemson ranked 57th nationally against the run last season, surrendering 155.92 yards per game on the ground in Brent Venables’ first season as the Tigers’ defensive coordinator. The Tigers were 71st against the pass at 240.3 ypg.
Murray on the big stage: Fair or unfair, Saturday’s game -- and the upcoming matchups with South Carolina and LSU in September -- will serve as another referendum on Murray’s status as a big-game performer.
The positive sign for Murray is that he has won two of his last three games against opponents that finished the season as a ranked team: Florida and Nebraska last season. Following an atrocious first half against Florida last season, Murray has tossed seven touchdowns against three interceptions in 10 quarters against ranked opponents, including the SEC championship game loss to Alabama.
Fresh-faced defenses: Let’s have some fun with numbers concerning Georgia and Clemson’s defensive depth charts.
After losing 12 key players from last season’s defense, Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham appears set to trot out a large group of newbies. Of the 22 players listed on the Bulldogs’ defensive two-deep in this week’s game notes, 16 of them have never started a college game. Heck, nine of them, including seven true freshmen, have never PLAYED in a college game.
But a number of them -- including outside linebacker Leonard Floyd, defensive lineman John Taylor, safety Tray Matthews and cornerbacks Brendan Langley and Shaq Wiggins -- could play big roles on Saturday.
Meanwhile, Clemson has some experience issues of its own. Ten of the 22 players on the defensive two-deep have never started and three of them are freshmen. They’re expected to be without injured freshman cornerback Mackensie Alexander, who at No. 4 in the 2013 ESPN 150 was Clemson’s highest-rated signee in its most recent recruiting class.
It’s easily conceivable that Saturday’s outcome could be determined by which team’s young defensive personnel acquits itself more effectively in its first game in leading roles.
The Bulldogs must face that caliber of opponent at Clemson’s Memorial Stadium, home of one of the noisiest and most electric atmospheres in college football, before a national primetime TV audience.
Blocking out all that is occurring on the periphery is an essential element in performing adequately on the field, Bulldogs offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said.
“[You] focus on your job and not get caught up in the surroundings and the hype of [being] on the road or the big game or big environment. It’s tough,” Bobo said. “The beginning of the season is always exciting no matter who you play, and then you add an opponent that has the same talent you do and is capable of beating you any Saturday. You have to do the little things and execute -- and that’s what it comes down to is executing, no matter how excited and how fired up you are.”
Making matters more difficult is that these are completely different teams from the ones that last took the field to complete the 2012 season -- Georgia against Nebraska in the Capital One Bowl and Clemson against LSU in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. Sure, watching film of those games is valuable in learning about personnel and tendencies, but the teams’ respective coaching staffs have had an entire offseason to tinker and adjust to new personnel.
“We know what talent they have and what they have coming back. But how are they going to use that talent?” Georgia tight end Arthur Lynch said. “Everyone switches things up.”
That’s where the Bulldogs hope their experience in key spots -- particularly with fifth-year quarterback Aaron Murray -- will come in handy. By now, the eldest Bulldogs have been in nearly every situation imaginable, which should help them adapt even to their potentially intimidating surroundings on Saturday night.
“On defense, you play with a little more emotion and play fast and play hard. On offense, you’ve got to be able to execute and handle those situations and sometimes experience is the only thing that can help you do that,” said Bobo, whose team is 10-2 in season openers since he joined the staff. “In years past, I think we’ve had some experience. I think we’ve had some good quarterback play that’s helped calm the situation, and this year we’ve got that and we’ve got an experienced quarterback, too, that I expect to play well.”
How great a day depends on which coordinator you asked, as defensive coordinator Todd Grantham and offensive coordinator Mike Bobo served as Saturday's head coaches, with Grantham's Black team defeating Bobo's Red 23-17.
"I hope it's a wake-up call. We've got a lot of work to do," said Bobo, who had a first-team offense that returns 10 starters on his sideline Saturday. "You can't just flip a switch and say, 'Hey, I'm ready to play' and step on the field on Saturday night in Clemson, S.C. [for the Aug. 31 season opener].
"It's hard for young kids when they're told over and over they're this and they're that and they're good, but you've got to put in the work. And our guys are working -- don't get me wrong -- but we could be a lot better than we are right now."
Read the rest of the story at DawgNation. For more on Georgia's spring game, check out the notebook.