Mark Richt’s a keeper.
And so’s Aaron Murray.
It might be difficult for Bulldog Nation to accept that dose of reality in the wake of another setback in Jacksonville.
While there were positives in Georgia’s 34-31 overtime loss to Florida, it was still a loss. And following 17 losses in 20 years, the continuation of a lengthy cycle of Gator dominance.
This one hurt more than most. Florida came in on a three game schneid. Georgia came in on a three game ride, actually favored by the oddsmakers. But the Gators had the advantage of a week off to regroup and rewrinkle schemes, and to reinstate one of its miscreants.
The game itself played out like a microcosm of Georgia’s season: a dreadful start followed by a rousing rally. Ultimately, the Dogs were done in by one final, fatal mistake.
Aaron Murray was at fault. On third and long in overtime, he did the one thing he couldn’t do in that situation. He threw a pass he shouldn’t have thrown, the ball was tipped, and Florida safety Will Hill gathered it — and the game — safely in his arms.
That was pretty much Murray’s only mistake of the second half. Which almost made up for a first half in which, for the first time, he played pretty much like a freshman.
“I had a little jitters,” Murray told cstv.com. “And I was ... probably more amped up than most games. But I won’t make any excuses.”
This was a huge game for Murray. He played his high school ball in Tampa, and was recruited heavily by Florida. Clearly, his mind made this a much bigger game than it needed to be.
His very first pass, a lazy toss out to A. J. Green, was intercepted. His next four attempts were barely in the vicinity of their intended receivers.
But his sixth pass was perfect, hitting Tavarras King in stride for a 63-yard touchdown.
In the second quarter, he would fumble trying to avoid a sack. That led directly to a Florida touchdown. On the next possession, he hurled a high pass to Aron White. Though catchable, it sailed through White’s hands, was intercepted by Hill, and led to another Gator touchdown two plays later.
The fumble? Murray’s first lost fumble of the season. The three interceptions? Doubled his total for the entire season. So, you could say that in the biggest game of his career, Murray came up woefully short.
You can also say that he’s had the best first year of any Georgia quarterback. His completion percentage, yards per attempt, and touchdown to interception ratio are all better than those posted by David Greene (2001), Eric Zeier (1991) or Matthew Stafford (2006).
He’s already acknowledged and accepted as the leader of the offense. He’s the guy who took charge of the offseason workouts.
The guy who spends more time in the film room than anyone.
The guy who overcame Saturday’s dreadful start to lead Georgia on four straight scoring drives in the second half, the last three resulting in touchdowns.
Part of his success is certainly attributable to the calming influence of Richt. “It got started off a little bit rocky, and Aaron didn’t get a real solid start,” Richt told cstv.com. “We just let him know that you just got to settle in there and trust your protection a little bit better, and if you start putting it on the money, we’ll be fine.
“And that’s about what happened.”
Richt’s serenity in the face of adversity often gets criticized by those who’d rather see volcanic eruptions they think will fire up the team.
But how can you question a team fighting back from a 21-7 halftime deficit, after giving away 14 of those points, and battling the way Georgia did in the second half? As linebacker Justin Houston told cstv.com, “One thing about this team I like is that we always fight hard.”
They kept fighting after those four straight losses, and they’ve played with heart and effort over the past month. It would have been mighty easy to pack it in at 1-4, a place no Dog had ever been before. But they kept playing. They didn’t lose faith in their coach.
Richt didn’t panic. He set about changing things. He had the team start dressing out in pads for Tuesday practices, and that seemed to get everyone’s attention.
A bigger change came last fall, when he changed defensive coordinators. And while the short term results weren’t tallied in the win column-how many times did we see at least one Dog defender fatally out of position during that first month — the long term prognosis is excellent.
This defense wasn’t manhandled by Florida. Despite the new scheme and return of two excellent playmakers, the Gators scored only 17 ungifted points.
The last two seasons haven’t been what Bulldog Nation wanted, or expected. But they’re not what Richt wanted or expected, either. And he’s shown he won’t accept failure. He’ll bring the Dogs back.
And he’s got just the quarterback to help him.