- David Ching, ESPN Staff Writer
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COLUMBIA, Mo. -- Georgia's players couldn't explain why they struggled so desperately against Missouri's defense in the first half of Saturday night's game, but they know why they were able to overcome those early struggles.
Fourth-year quarterback Aaron Murray and the collection of veterans around him kept their cool when nothing was going right, enabling them to close with a 32-3 run and blow past the Tigers in their SEC debut, 41-20.
"I was a little frustrated, but the guys weren't," Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said. "I kept talking to them between series, and they were very confident that we were going to get something going. Credit those guys for believing in each other, playing off each other and finding a way to get it done."
Thanks to a collection of penalties, dropped passes and blown assignments, Georgia mustered just three points in its first eight drives Saturday. And Murray was as erratic as anyone, completing 6 of 12 passes for 33 yards and an interception deep in his own territory. But he and the offense pulled itself together in a big way, starting with a momentum-building touchdown drive late in the second quarter.
Counting that touchdown -- which cut Missouri's halftime lead to 10-9 -- the Bulldogs scored on six of their next eight drives, with Murray looking like a different man. After his slow start, he masterfully guided the offense by going 16-for-23 for 209 yards and three touchdowns.
"If you get a touchdown, it gives you a lot of confidence. We just needed that little kick through the door," Murray said of the 71-yard touchdown drive late in the second quarter, capped by a 2-yard touchdown pass to Marlon Brown. "We were right there every time and just shooting ourselves in the foot. We finally kicked it open, and after that, things just started opening up, guys were making plays and the rest is history. It was a great game."
Georgia's coaches and players agreed that a less experienced team could easily have folded when so much was going wrong -- particularly on a night where Missouri's players were trying to prove a point in their first conference game against one of the league's storied programs. Tempers flared on the field throughout the evening, but the Bulldogs persevered through that, as well.
"There was yapping down there. That's to be expected," said receiver Michael Bennett, who had a career-high eight catches for 79 yards. "They wanted to make a statement, and they were yapping down there trying to get in our heads, but it's not going to shake us. We're a really composed team."
While the Bulldogs did much of their damage out of a four-receiver look, they also deserve credit for improving their third-down efficiency -- particularly in the third quarter. After failing to convert a single third down in seven first-half chances, Georgia went 4 for 5 in the third quarter alone. That included a 40-yard pass from Murray to Brown on third-and-11 from the Georgia 27, setting up Brown's go-ahead, 11-yard touchdown catch two plays later.
Georgia's success with the four-receiver set -- against a Missouri defense that no doubt became accustomed to such offensive attacks in its previous stint in the run-and-gun Big 12 -- surprised even Bulldogs coach Mark Richt.
"I think they've got an outstanding defense, I really do," Richt said. "I was kind of surprised we were able to do some of the things we did once it got going. But it's a tribute to guys just fighting and Murray knowing what to do with the ball and guys making plays."
According to Bobo, that is what made the difference in the outcome in the end. Georgia had every reason to become rattled by the way it struggled for most of the first half on offense. Missouri seemed to be on the verge of breaking the game open, and the boisterous Faurot Field crowd was making its presence felt when the Bulldogs launched their final drive of the first half.
Then Murray hit third-year sophomore Bennett for an 11-yard gain. Then he hit senior Brown for a 24-yard gain into Missouri territory. Senior Tavarres King followed with his first reception of the night, a 34-yard inside screen to the Missouri 2. Two plays later, Murray hit Brown with a 2-yard touchdown. The veteran Bulldogs were off to the races at that point, thanks to their ability to stay cool under circumstances that would try less-experienced players' confidence.
"We talked about it last night -- just believing. Believing in each other and trusting in each other and I thought those guys did that tonight," Bobo said. "There was no panic, no walking in at halftime and eyes wide like, 'What are we going to do?' It was a very focused group. We went over what we were going to do in the second half, and for the most part, we executed there in the second half."