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In QB battle, Murray comes out ahead

ATHENS, Ga. -- About 30 minutes after No. 9 Georgia finished off No. 6 LSU in a 44-41 victory at Sanford Stadium, and just a short time after Bulldogs coach Mark Richt made a victory lap around the field and quarterback Aaron Murray high-fived about every other fan in the student section, UGA offensive coordinator Mike Bobo searched aimlessly in the stadium's bowels.

For several minutes, Bobo looked for LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger, his former pupil, who nearly ripped out Georgia's hearts and ended its hopes of playing for a BCS national championship before October.

"Did you see the quarterback play in this game?" Bobo asked a reporter. "It was ridiculous. I'm about to collapse."

For nearly four hours on Saturday, Mettenberger and Murray went nose-to-nose against each other, just like they had during their battle for UGA's starting job in the spring of 2010. Every time Murray or Mettenberger inched his team ahead in the critical SEC contest, the other quarterback answered -- until the Georgia defense finally made a stop at the end.

"Everybody knew it was going to be a shootout," UGA tight end Arthur Lynch said. "You've got to give Zach some credit. He came into a hostile environment and threw it all over the place."

But as good as Mettenberger looked on Saturday, Murray was just as good, if not better. In fact, the quarterback who couldn't win the big one won two big ones in the first month of the season. Sure, UGA lost at Clemson 38-35 in its Aug. 31 opener, but what other FBS team defeated two top-10 opponents -- then-No. 6 South Carolina and LSU -- in the first five weeks of the season?

"It's not [about] me," Murray said. "It's the team. I think we've proved to the nation that this is a tough team and a resilient team. The loss at Clemson was obviously tough, but I think we grew up from that loss and got better."

Murray and UGA's offense didn't have a choice but to get better. The loss at Clemson revealed Georgia's inexperience on defense, and LSU exposed it again on Saturday.

After LSU took a 41-37 lead on tailback Jeremy Hill's 8-yard touchdown run with 4:14 to play, Murray directed UGA's offense on a six-play, 75-yard drive that culminated with his 25-yard touchdown pass to Justin Scott-Wesley down the right sideline. Somehow, Scott-Wesley was all alone and only had to catch the ball and beat one defender to the end zone. After the Bulldogs booted the extra point to take a 44-41 lead with 1:47 to go, Mettenberger took the field one more time.

"Frankly, I figured we had enough time," LSU coach Les Miles said. "They scored too early in my mind."

It was exactly the scenario Mettenberger had envisioned while growing up in nearby Watkinsville, Ga. His mother, Tammy, has worked as an administrative assistant in UGA's football office the past 14 years. She was given two weeks of vacation as the Bulldogs prepared to play her son's new team. Mettenberger grew up around UGA's football program, and when he blossomed into one of the country's top quarterback prospects in 2009, he signed to play for the Bulldogs, even though he knew he'd have to compete with Murray for the starting job.

But after the quarterbacks were neck and neck coming out of spring practice in 2010, Mettenberger was arrested at a bar in south Georgia, pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor charges of sexual battery and was dismissed from the team. He spent one season at Butler County (Kan.) Community College and then transferred to LSU prior to last season.

After Miles hired former NFL coordinator Cam Cameron to run his offense this season, Mettenberger finally blossomed into the quarterback everyone imagined he'd be, throwing 10 touchdowns with only one interception in his first four games.

On Saturday, Mettenberger stepped between Georgia's storied hedges, albeit as LSU's starting quarterback. And for four quarters, it was hard to decide which team had the better quarterback.

"You couldn't have written a better script," Lynch said. "I would have liked for there to be a little less stress for us, but both quarterbacks played great. I wish Zach nothing but the best. He's a great kid and has worked hard like Aaron."

As bad as both defenses played on Saturday, it seemed like whichever quarterback had the football last would probably lead his team to victory. LSU took possession for the final time at its 24-yard line. The Tigers needed a field goal to force overtime or a touchdown to win. UGA freshman Leonard Floyd sacked Mettenberger for a 7-yard loss on first down, but then Mettenberger completed an 18-yard pass to Odell Beckham Jr. for a first down.

After Mettenberger threw three straight incompletions, the Tigers faced fourth-and-10 at their 35-yard line with 58 seconds to play. Following a UGA timeout, Mettenberger's last pass of the night fell incomplete after receiver Jarvis Landry slipped on his route.

Mettenberger completed 23 of 37 passes for 372 yards with three touchdowns.

"I think the way Zach performed was great," Miles said. "It was exactly what we needed. ... He came in here to play quarterback for the Tigers and tried to lead his team to victory. That's all we asked of him. Was he perfect? No, but he was damn good. We like him as our quarterback."

And Georgia likes Murray as its quarterback. Murray, a senior from Tampa, Fla., is the first quarterback in SEC history to throw for 3,000 yards in three consecutive seasons and is well on his way to a fourth. Last week, he became only the second quarterback in SEC history to throw more than 100 touchdowns in his career. He added four more against LSU, while completing 20 of 34 passes for 298 yards with one interception.

In his first three seasons, Murray was criticized for his inability to lead the Bulldogs to victories against ranked teams. After winning the SEC East in each of the past two seasons, the Bulldogs fell short against LSU and Alabama, respectively, in the past two SEC championship games.

"The guy just prepares every week like a champion," said Bobo, a former UGA quarterback. "Sometimes, it's hard for an individual not to listen to the outside noise. But I thought he was as calm as he's ever been. He knew exactly where they were going to be and where to go with the ball."

After Murray took a knee on the final play of the game, he heaved his final pass of the night about 50 yards into the west end zone. He ran to the north side of Sanford Stadium and raised his arms in the air.

"This might be No. 1," Murray said, when asked where the LSU victory ranked in his career. "This was a blast. It was a lot of fun."

It was a lot of fun for everyone except the defenses on the field.