For two and a half quarters on Saturday night, the Missouri Tigers looked every bit as deserving of membership in the Southeastern Conference as the Georgia Bulldogs did, though that is not a compliment to Mizzou.
For two and a half quarters, Aaron Murray looked more like a freshman than he did when he was a freshman. For two and a half quarters, the Bulldogs seemed to alternate good plays with bad, seemed incapable of attempting a pass on which the quarterback, his blockers, and his intended target all did their jobs effectively, and used their timeouts as recklessly as Isaiah Crowell used Mark Richt’s goodwill.
For two and a half quarters, Michael Bennett seemed determined to offset every big catch with an equally big drop. For two and a half quarters, a shorthanded defense earned an A for effort, yet still got burned on James Franklin touchdown passes of 41 and 69 yards. For two and a half quarters, freshmen made freshman mistakes, and so did most of their more seasoned teammates.
For two and a half quarters, Jarvis Jones was the only Bulldog who consistently looked like he had played an intercollegiate football game before. After two and a half quarters, though, something happened.
Down 17-9 and looking like they had been rattled to the point of coming unraveled, the Red and Black acted like a team that had been playing SEC football for 80 years instead of 40 minutes. Murray completed a pass to Bennett. After a jumpy John Theus incurred yet another false start penalty and Keith Marshall made up the lost ground with a seven-yard scamper, Murray found Bennett again for a first down. The Georgia signal caller failed to connect with Marlon Brown, then went right back to him for 18 yards and a fresh set of downs inside Missouri territory.
After Sheldon Richardson underscored the extent to which his mouth writes checks his body can’t cash by roughing Murray to give the ‘Dawgs an additional 15 yards, Ken Malcome carried the Classic City Canines to the ten yard line on three carries, then Murray hooked up with Tavarres King for the touchdown and with Bennett for the game-tying two-point conversion.
Franklin caught fire in response, hitting seven straight pass attempts to drive the Tigers to the Georgia seven yard line, but the Bulldogs bowed up and held the home team to the field goal that moved Mizzou back out in front, 20-17. Though yet another false start---this time against Theus’s fellow frosh, Todd Gurley---and an incomplete pass---once again with Bennett as the intended receiver---put the Bulldogs in third and long, Murray found Brown for 40 yards, Bennett for 22, and Brown again for the last eleven. Marshall Morgan, who had gone from budding hero to putative goat when his game-tying 52-yard field goal was followed up five minutes later with the shanked would-be game-tying extra point that left his team trailing by a 10-9 margin at halftime, hit the point after that gave the Red and Black a four-point edge.
The ‘Dawgs halted their hosts on downs to reclaim custody of the pigskin, setting up the offense inside the Missouri 40. After the Athenians advanced the oval 15 yards, Morgan made good on the 41-yard try that pushed the visitors’ advantage to seven points. The two teams traded punts, though an intervening 44-yard run by Gurley flipped the field, as a drive that began at the Georgia eight yard line was followed by a possession commencing at the Tiger twelve.
A Bulldog penalty took Mizzou as far as its own 19 before Jones snatched a pass out of midair and made a beeline for the end zone, being stopped short of the goal line in order to set up a one-play, one-yard scoring drive that ended with Gurley breaking the plane with the football in tow. Morgan made it 34-20. Another short Tiger possession ensued, this time culminating in a Jones sack, a forced fumble, and a recovery by John Jenkins. Malcome covered ten yards in three carries to tack on the touchdown that made it 41-20 with five minutes and change remaining, but, at that point, Georgia’s 17-point fourth quarter had made emphatic the victory that not long before had appeared tenuous, at best.
The Bulldogs finished the night with fewer first downs, fewer yards, and fewer plays, but with more points and more heart. A balanced Red and Black attack---Georgia attempted 35 passes and ran the ball 35 times---produced more yards per pass, more yards per rush, and fewer turnovers, albeit only slightly so. It just took a while for Mark Richt’s preternatural calm to infect his team, as it has so many times since that day in Knoxville eleven years ago when his players, and we, began to believe again in the Bulldogs’ ability to enter a hostile environment and emerge victorious.
Early in the evening, we were treated to an embarrassing gaffe-fest by two teams who looked like jittery junior varsity squads. By the end of the night, a good team was beaten by a better team, and Coach Richt, who has the resting heart rate of a marathon runner or a jewel thief, had surrendered to the emotions of the moment and was hugging key players for making big plays.
They deserved those shows of support, appreciation, and affection, and he deserved to feel good enough to bestow them. With the win, the best head football coach in Georgia’s gridiron history improved to 108-38 for his career, including 39-10 in true away games, 31-8 in conference road games, and 32-12 in night games. Not all of that, I would argue, is attributable to a soft schedule that, incidentally, now no longer appears quite so pillowy on account of the absence of the Arkansas Razorbacks from the slate.
The University of Missouri is a fine school with a fine athletics program, a fine football team, and fine fans, whose presence in the Southeastern Conference we welcome and appreciate. You will pardon us, though, if a few of us “old men” smoke our cigars, quaff our whiskey, sing our songs, ring our Chapel bell, and celebrate long into the night in the postgame comment thread, and elsewhere. This was, as the Tiger faithful told us it would be, a big game; the Red and Black deserve to have us treat it like it was one.