Georgia officially announced its candidacy for the national title Saturday, and there should be no confusion how this team got here.
It’s not because they were lobbed some puffball of an early schedule (then-No. 8 Clemson, then-No. 6 South Carolina, Saturday’s No. 6 LSU among the first four opponents). It’s not because the teachings of Todd Grantham have elevated the defense — which allowed five consecutive scoring drives (30 points) until finally making a stop in the end. (If Grantham’s name was Willie Martinez, he would not have made it out of the parking lot Saturday. But Grantham just looks so gosh darn good, doesn’t he?)
The Bulldogs are here because of Aaron Murray.
They beat LSU with the final spasm Saturday at Sanford Stadium, 44-41. It was such a remarkable performance by Murray and his counterpart and former roommate, Zach Mettenberger, that the legendary former Georgia coach and athletic director, Vince Dooley, was moved to give unprecedented praise.
“That was the best two-quarterback performance I’ve ever seen,” Dooley said.
It’s not like Murray was that much better than Mettenberger, the excommunicated former Georgia quarterback who had been the center of attention all week. In the end, Murray probably made one more great play than his counterpart. Mettenberger threw for 372 yards and three touchdowns. Murray threw for 298 yards and four — the last to Justin Scott-Wesley with 1:47 remaining (after Mettenberger put LSU ahead two minutes earlier by engineering a 75-yard drive, punctuated by a 25-yard completion on third-and-22).
What made Murray’s performance so special is the backdrop of what his offense has lost. His most dangerous target, wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell, is gone for the season. His best running back, Todd Gurley — who some probably would argue also is the team’s best player — was lost early in the second quarter with a sprained ankle.
It didn’t matter. Teammates and coaches marveled at Murray’s cool. That’s somewhat amusing considering the senior acknowledged afterward, “I think I lost five years off of my life,” watching the LSU offense from the sideline.
It didn’t show Saturday against LSU — just like it didn’t show at Clemson (when Murray led a near improbable comeback win, despite the failings of the beat-up Georgia defense) and just like it didn’t show in the 41-30 body slam of South Carolina two weeks ago.
“We’ve grown up a lot,” Murray said. “If we didn’t face Clemson and South Carolina those first two games, I don’t know if we would’ve won today. I don’t know if we could’ve gone punch-for-punch with them. In terms of maturity, we’re so much further down the road than we were a month ago.”
“Definitely. I’ve learned so much. This is a game I’ll remember for the rest of my life,” he said. “Twenty years from now when we’re old and we see each other, this will be one of the games that we all talk about.”
People look and talk about Murray differently now. His leadership and improved resolve in the game’s crucial moments have put him on a special level. It showed against LSU. After Georgia recovered a fumbled punt, Murray struck quickly with a 21-yard touchdown pass to Michael Bennett, giving the Dogs a 34-27 lead.
But Mettenberger kept responding. LSU converted 10 of 15 third-down situations. He drove the Tigers to two more touchdowns, wrapped around a Dogs field goal, to give LSU a 41-37 lead. Murray watched from the sideline as Jeremy Hill ran into the end zone with 4:14 left for the Tigers’ go-ahead score.
He wasn’t fazed.
“When he came into the huddle, he just said, ‘Guys, this is what we’re used to: our backs against the wall,’” tight end Arthur Lynch said.
Murray completed three consecutive passes to Scott-Wesley and Lynch (twice). An 18-yard run by J.J. Green gave the Dogs a first down at the LSU 25. When Murray stepped to the line, he saw the Tigers in a cover-2 defense and knew Georgia had a shot to score. Scott-Wesley beat the LSU cornerback on the outside. Lynch drew the safety away on the inside. Scott-Wesley was wide open.
“My eyes got huge,” Murray said, smiling.
Murray threw a perfect pass for the touchdown, and Sanford Stadium erupted (again).
“In the moment of truth, we took care of business,” coach Mark Richt said.
Murray and Mettenberger were 1 and 1-A on the Georgia depth chart in the spring of 2010. Murray was believed to have won the starting job in the spring, but admitted this week he was uncertain enough that thoughts of transferring went through his mind. But when Mettenberger was thrown off the team for his arrest for misdemeanor sexual assault, Murray didn’t have to go anywhere.
Lynch, who is close friends with both quarterbacks, said of Murray, “I’ve seen his growth since then. For him to have the ball in his hands at the end, to do what he did, that’s pretty impressive,” Lynch said. “That’s what great leaders do. They take the reins in a stressful situation.”
Georgia nearly reached the BCS title game last season because of Murray’s play against Alabama. They may make it this year because of him again.