Before the game began, Russ at long last was given his due: Michael Adams performed the ceremonial collaring that transformed a longtime interim mascot officially into Uga IX. Thus acknowledged, his royal highness immediately turned his back on the camera filming his coronation, filling the Sanford Stadium scoreboard with the image of his big brown buttocks and the confirmation that no gender ambiguity impairs the latest in the distinguished line. The tone for the evening had been set.
After Jarvis Jones made his only appearance of the evening during the coin toss, Marshall Morgan got the proceedings underway with a 65-yard kickoff for a touchback, but the crowd was given cause for concern when the lowly Florida Atlantic Owls converted three third downs in the course of a 46-yard drive. Though the visitors’ opening possession culminated in a fumble forced by Chase Vasser and recovered by Malcolm Mitchell, FAU would convert nine of 19 third downs in the course of a contest in which it felt as though Todd Grantham’s vaunted defense never truly put the clamps down on an Owl offense it ought to have manhandled.
Fortunately, the offense came to play, opening with a Rantavious Wooten end-around that went for 24 yards and carried the Georgia Bulldogs into Florida Atlantic territory on the home team’s initial offensive snap. In went Christian LeMay for a change-of-pace play, picking up five yards with his legs. Following another first down, Todd Gurley tore off 21 of his 111 rushing yards on a ten-carry day, then Aaron Murray found Chris Conley for 13 yards to the one. Murray sneaked it over the goal line for the score, and Morgan made it 7-0.
The Owls’ Graham Wilbert continued to find success in the passing game, particularly on the perimeter, and the visitors converted another third down on their second possession before being forced to punt. Back came the Bulldog O, as Murray connected with Arthur Lynch for pickups of 17 and 20 yards before FAU forced the fumble that set the Floridians up at midfield. On another third down, Damian Fortner gashed the Georgia defense on a touchdown scamper that netted 43 of the visitors’ 135 rushing yards.
The deadlock lasted for 79 seconds. Starting at their own six yard line, the Classic City Canines continued to rip off yardage in chunks, gaining 20 yards on a Keith Marshall run before flying down the field on receptions by Marlon Brown for 34 yards, Michael Bennett for ten, and Tavarres King for 28. Marshall finished off the rapid-fire march with a two-yard touchdown plunge. Undaunted, the Owls overcame another third-down scenario using Wilbert’s 48-yard hookup with William Dukes to put Florida Atlantic in position to snarl the score once more.
A 22-yard rush by Gurley went to waste when the ensuing drive ended in a punt, and the assemblage began to become concerned, not that the Red and Black would be bested by Florida Atlantic, but that FAU would prove to be the new Buffalo Bulls. 2012, after all, appeared to be shaping up to be the year the patsies struck back against the SEC; on the same day that the Bulldogs found themselves tied in the second period with the suddenly unstoppable Owls, the LSU Tigers were playing much the same game against the winless Idaho Vandals, the Auburn Tigers were being taken to overtime by the very same ULM Warhawks who a week earlier took down the Arkansas Razorbacks, and the Kentucky Wildcats were being beaten in OT by the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers.
Fortunately, what followed were perhaps the best back-to-back series for the Bulldogs of the night. Florida Atlantic went three and out, then Georgia marched 67 yards on eight running plays. Marshall kick-started the drive by darting 28 yards, and his 17-yard pickup on third and one set up first and goal. Another Murray sneak put the Red and Black out in front for good, and, when Georgia got the ball back with 2:33 remaining in the first half, Murray found Bennett for a 67-yard touchdown strike to give the host squad some breathing room at the break.
On the opening possession of the third quarter, Murray again completed a pass to Bennett, this time for 29 yards. Later in the same drive, the Bulldogs faced third and nine in FAU territory, but Lynch hauled in a 36-yard reception that, upon further review, properly was counted as a touchdown. The completion gave Murray his second passing score to match his two rushing TDs en route to a career-best evening on which he hooked up on 14 of 19 aerials for 342 yards.
The Georgia signal caller’s Florida Atlantic counterpart succeeded in passing for 183 yards on 18 completions out of 33 attempts, but Wilbert tossed a trio of incompletions on the next Owl possession, so Murray quickly went back to work, hitting King for a 25-yard gain. Marshall took the ‘Dawgs down to the FAU 38 on three rushes as part of his 104-yard night, then Gurley covered the remaining ground on a run to paydirt.
A Jamie Lindley touchback, three FAU plays netting nine yards, and an Owl punt later, Mitchell trotted onto the field with the offense. The receiver-turned-defensive-back was the only option Murray considered, and Mitchell rewarded his quarterback’s confidence with a 49-yard reception. Murray added an 18-yard run of his own on third and 15 to extend a drive that carried the Bulldogs inside the Florida Atlantic ten yard line, but Murray got greedy and threw an interception in the end zone instead of throwing the ball away on second down.
Bulldog Nation’s collective anguish at this turn of events lasted all of one snap, as Amarlo Herrera picked off Wilbert and took the interception across the goal line for the 35-yard return that made it 49-14 in favor of the Red and Black. The Owls thereafter turned it over on downs, and LeMay picked up where Murray left off by completing a 43-yard pass to Justin Scott-Wesley to start the touchdown drive that made the margin 42 points. FAU went three and out, and the Athenians appeared to be on cruise control until LeMay threw the interception that closed out the scoring and made the final margin 56-20.
The Georgia D had two guys back, Sanders Commings and Chase Vasser, but still there were three guys out, including Jarvis Jones, who proved his worth from the sidelines in the same way Peyton Manning had his excellence demonstrated by the way the Indianapolis Colts collapsed when he was injured. Two of Florida Atlantic’s three scores were the direct result of Bulldog turnovers, and the defense surrendered no points in the second half, but the third-down conversions are worrisome, as is the Classic City Canines’ evident vulnerability on the perimeter. In Todd we trust, yet still Georgia has been victimized for 20 or more points in five straight games.
It is difficult to find too much fault with the offense on a night on which Georgia gained more yards than in any other game in school history, but the turnover and the time of possession disparities ought not to be overlooked. Aaron Murray was sharp from the get-go, seven Bulldogs caught passes, and the Red and Black appeared as adept at kicking plays to the outside on offense as the defense often appeared inept at stopping such plays by the opposition, but the Bulldogs’ penchant for big plays recalled a criticism Vince Dooley had of his team after the Classic City Canines clobbered the Clemson Tigers in 1976.
Following his team’s 41-0 Bicentennial victory over the Fort Hill Felines, Coach Dooley remarked that reserve quarterback Tony Flanagan led Georgia’s only sustained drive of the day. This was so because of a 73-yard option keeper by Ray Goff, a 21-yard Matt Robinson run, a 25-yard Willie McClendon dash, an 85-yard Gene Washington reception, and a 36-yard Steve Davis catch on five separate scoring drives. Likewise, the defense last night might have benefited from a few more possessions, like the run-heavy march highlighted above, that consumed time as well as distance.
This weekend has been a busy one for my family and me, so I had occasion to traverse I-75 through downtown Atlanta earlier this afternoon, passing by the campus of the Georgia Institute of Technology one day after the Yellow Jackets defeated the Virginia Cavaliers by the selfsame score by which the Bulldogs bested the Owls who were at their most lively after dark. The upper right-hand quadrant of the Engineers’ matrix board beside the highway was out of order, which caused me a chuckle at the alleged math whizzes’ expense.
The metaphor, though, was hard to ignore, as the Georgia football team, like the Georgia Tech electronic billboard, is largely functional yet just slightly off. The Alabama Crimson Tide are the No. 1 team in the country for the simple reason that they play their best in all three phases of the game for 60 minutes every Saturday. The Georgia Bulldogs are this close to being that good, but they aren’t there yet, partly because we have not seen the full starting lineup take the field together, but mostly because the Classic City Canines just can’t seem to play that elusive complete game. Can you imagine what the ‘Dawgs would look like if the defense we saw against the Missouri Tigers appeared in the same game as the offense we saw against the Florida Atlantic Owls? I’m looking forward to seeing that some Saturday this season, but it hasn’t happened yet. Until it does, Bulldog Nation will continue to hold its collective breath and grouse about 36-point victories that were harder than they had to be.