Georgia Bulldogs: Rantavious Wooten
Today, we'll look at No. 1: the 2009 group that was built around a couple of stars and a larger group of key contributors on one of the best teams of the Mark Richt era (2012).
The contributors: The strength of this group is its depth. More than half of the signees became at least part-time starters at some point and a dozen were valuable members of the 2012 team that finished fifth in the national rankings. Guards Burnette and Dallas Lee started for most of the past three seasons, Williams was one of the emotional leaders of the 2012 club, linebacker Michael Gilliard was one of the team's leading tacklers in 2011, and Brown and Rantavious Wooten overcame injury-filled careers to enjoy solid senior seasons. Brown was one of the highest-rated players in the class, but his impressive 2012 helped him finally break through and become an undrafted free agent signee with the Baltimore Ravens -- and then one of the top rookie receivers of the 2013 season.
The letdowns: There were some notable departures in this group, starting with quarterback Zach Mettenberger, who eventually became a two-year starter at LSU after getting dismissed before his second season at UGA. Washaun Ealey, who led the team in rushing for two seasons, also parted ways with the Bulldogs before the 2011 season. In addition, ESPN 150 signee Dexter Moody never enrolled and cornerback Jordan Love and defensive linemen Montez Robinson and Derrick Lott left Athens early in their careers. Offensive lineman Austin Long was a huge recruit, but struggled with numerous health issues before finally contributing as a reserve in 2012. He left the team over an academic issue before the 2013 season. The off-field issues that robbed UGA of Ealey, Moody and Mettenberger's services are perhaps the biggest disappointments in this class, although the Bulldogs did just fine with Todd Gurley and Murray instead.
The results: There was more star power in other classes, and perhaps one or two of them will still catch up to this bunch before their time at Georgia is over, but the 2009 group was full of blue-collar players who produced for at least two seasons in Athens. The program was at a low point early in the class' tenure, but the group helped Georgia bounce back with consecutive division titles and seasons with at least 10 wins. Their time at UGA ended in disappointing fashion as injuries crippled a 2013 team that started in the top five. Nonetheless, the program is once again on solid footing thanks in large part to this group's on-field production and leadership.
McClendon, who each season has juggled his lineups because of an assortment of injuries and off-the-field issues, predicted to All-SEC tailback Todd Gurley before the season that his sophomore year would not be all breakaway touchdown runs and soaring dives into the end zone. Those moments came, too, but McClendon's prediction proved to be correct when Gurley injured himself in the opener against Clemson and later missed three-and-a-half games with an ankle injury sustained against LSU.
It's always been something for McClendon's players -- and for fellow UGA assistant Tony Ball's receivers, as well -- but the coaches and offensive coordinator Mike Bobo have proven over time that they are capable of adjusting to the personnel available on a given week.
They've certainly had more than enough practice in that capacity this season.
Gurley and Keith Marshall both missed multiple games at tailback, while freshmen J.J. Green and Brendan Douglas also struggled with minor ailments at points. And Ball's wideout group lost Malcolm Mitchell to a torn ACL on the second possession of the season, Justin Scott-Wesley to an ACL at midseason and Chris Conley, Michael Bennett and Jonathon Rumph for multiple games at points.
The results with a decimated lineup weren't always pretty -- the Bulldogs committed four turnovers in a midseason loss to Missouri and generated just 221 yards of offense in the following week's loss to Vanderbilt -- but Bobo and company found a way to keep Georgia on pace to break the school's scoring record. The Bulldogs are averaging 38.2 ppg this season, just ahead of their record-setting 37.8-ppg average from 2012.
“There was an adjustment period there that we had to go through,” Bobo said. “That Missouri game, we pretty much stayed aggressive, but we kind of turned the ball over a little bit [and had] some timing issues. We tried to slow it a little bit down in the Vanderbilt game and didn't have the results that way, either, and had to go back to the drawing board and the guys responded and answered and came back and played well the rest of the year.”
That they did. Georgia averaged 45.8 ppg over the final four games, even without key players like Marshall, Mitchell, Scott-Wesley and senior quarterback Aaron Murray, who tore his ACL in the home finale against Kentucky. Even with Rantavious Wooten and Rhett McGowan playing bigger roles at receiver and with the freshmen filling in for Gurley and Marshall in the backfield at midseason, the Bulldogs regularly got production out of less heralded players.
“A lot of people went down and kids had to step up and prove they can play. Even a lot of freshmen had to step up and play,” Douglas said. “I just give credit to the coaches for having them ready to go and Coach B-Mac having me and J.J. ready to roll in whenever we needed to.”
McClendon turned 30 earlier this month, but since Mark Richt promoted him from his post as a graduate assistant in 2009, he has dealt with as much roster turnover as a considerably older coach.
It was stressful, McClendon admitted, but it also expedited his development within the profession.
“You learn by hard times,” McClendon said. “You learn by adversity, you learn by when things are not going just peachy. And obviously that's been the case, and I think I've grown tremendously from it.”
His boss agrees.
Richt saw Green rush for 129 yards in an overtime win against Tennessee and witnessed Douglas post 113 yards of offense against Missouri even when they weren't ready to play leading roles just yet. He saw 10 different wideouts make catches over the course of the season, with seven of them finishing with at least 89 yards in a game this fall.
Injuries are of course part of the game, but Georgia's receivers and running backs have dealt with more than their share over the last couple of seasons – and Richt is proud of the way his assistants have coped with those situations.
“[Ball] coaches them all the same and he does a great job of trying to crosstrain players when they're ready for it to make sure if you do have an injury … you've got guys that have got to be moving around. He did a great job,” Richt said. “And McClendon did, too. Bryan, I think he's blossomed into one heck of a coach.
“I just don't like bragging too much about these guys because everybody wants to try to snag them,” Richt chuckled. “So we don't want that to happen.”
ATHENS, Ga. -- Here are five things you need to know leading up to Saturday night's game between Georgia (6-4, 4-3 SEC) and Kentucky (2-8, 0-6).
Last time for the seniors: This is it for Aaron Murray and Georgia's 27 other seniors who will play their final home game at Sanford Stadium. The group enters the Kentucky game with a four-year record of 34-17, having won SEC East titles in 2011 and 2012.
Included in that group are eight players who started last Saturday's game against Auburn: Murray, offensive linemen Chris Burnette, Dallas Lee and Kenarious Gates, tight end Arthur Lynch, receivers Rantavious Wooten and Rhett McGowan and defensive lineman Garrison Smith.
Murray's record chase: Murray is already the only quarterback in SEC history to pass for 3,000-plus yards in three seasons. He needs just 108 yards against Kentucky to make it all four seasons. Having already broken the SEC career records for passing yards, touchdown passes, total offense and completions this season, Murray can still chase down two more records before the season ends. He is 59 pass attempts behind former Kentucky quarterback Jared Lorenzon's career total of 1,514 and needs 12 touchdowns rushing or passing to match Florida great Tim Tebow's mark for touchdown responsibility (145).
League's top tacklers meet: The top three tacklers in the SEC will be on the field tonight: Georgia's Ramik Wilson and Amarlo Herrera and Kentucky's Avery Williamson. Last week against Auburn, Wilson posted Georgia's highest single-game tackles total since 1998 when he recorded 18 stops. That pushed his SEC-leading tackles total to 110 (11 per game). After making 12 tackles against Auburn, Herrera now has 91 tackles this season. Williamson is third with 88 tackles after finishing second in the league with 135 stops last season.
Two Georgia players have led the SEC in tackles: Whit Marshall in 1995 (128) and Rennie Curran in 2009 (130).
Strangely close series: Georgia is regularly a heavy favorite -- and it is again this week, with late-week lines favoring the Bulldogs by 24 points -- but Kentucky has frequently been a tough opponent in the last decade.
Dating back to the Wildcats' upset win in 2006, Georgia is 5-2 against the Wildcats. But included in those five wins are a 42-38 win in 2008, a 19-10 victory where Georgia clinched the 2011 SEC East title after leading just 12-10 entering the final quarter, and last season's 29-24 win in Lexington. Murray torched the Wildcats' secondary for 427 yards and four touchdowns last year, but it took a late onside kick recovery by Connor Norman to disrupt the Wildcats' upset bid.
The news from Thursday that Wildcats coach Mark Stoops had suspended starting cornerback Cody Quinn, third-leading receiver Demarco Robinson and freshman defensive end Jason Hatcher for violating team rules certainly won't help Kentucky's cause.
Turnover troubles: Aside from the score, turnover margin is typically one of the most telling stats in football. Keep an eye on turnovers tonight, as both of these teams have had odd seasons in that regard. Georgia is tied for last in the SEC in turnover margin (minus-eight) although it has taken care of the ball fairly effectively throughout. The Bulldogs' problem is that the defense has intercepted just four passes and recovered five fumbles. They generated 30 turnovers (17 fumble recoveries and 13 interceptions) last season.
Meanwhile, Kentucky is dead even in turnover margin this year, having 11 giveaways and 11 takeaways. The Wildcats have just one interception this season -- by linebacker Josh Forrest -- but they rank second in the SEC with 10 fumble recoveries. Their offense was second nationally for fewest turnovers, but quarterback Jalen Whitlow threw four interceptions last Saturday in a 22-6 loss to Vanderbilt.
ATHENS, Ga. -- If you're at Sanford Stadium prior to Georgia's game against Kentucky on Saturday, don't be alarmed if you witness a physical altercation between Aaron Murray and one of his fellow quarterbacks.
Should he grow too emotional during the pregame ceremony where UGA will honor its seniors before their final home game, Murray has instructed backup Faton Bauta to snap him back to reality.
“You really have to flip a switch because you want to enjoy that time with your family and get to take a picture with Coach [Mark] Richt and all that, and it is tough,” Murray said Tuesday. “But I told Faton yesterday, I said, 'If I'm being a little baby, come slap the crap out of me. Seriously, come knock me and get me going again and get me ticked off.' Because it is tough.”
Murray is one of 28 seniors who will be honored Saturday -- a group that has seen its share of ups and downs at UGA.
“It's been a pretty serious roller coaster in my time here for ups and downs for winning and losing,” senior left guard Dallas Lee said. “I don't really know, man, I'm proud of everything we've gone through the last couple years, getting as close as we did and this year fighting through all the adversity that we've had with injuries.”
Lee is one of a trio of senior starters on Georgia's offensive line along with right guard Chris Burnette and left tackle Kenarious Gates. Together, the three have started exactly 100 games in their college careers.
It's a four-year stretch that saw Georgia post its only losing record under Richt when they were freshmen, bounce back from two losses to open their sophomore season to reach the SEC championship game for the first time since 2005 and then come within a few yards of playing for a BCS championship last year, only to fall just short against eventual BCS champ Alabama in their return trip to Atlanta.
“It's a bond that a lot of people don't have with somebody,” Lee said. “I have the fortune of having it with both of them, Chris and Ken, and it's awesome, man. I consider them two of my brothers.”
Even this season has been a valuable growing experience for the group, said defensive lineman Garrison Smith, the only senior starter on the team. As in life, Smith said in football “you're going to have sunshine and you're going to have storms.”
This season, which opened with the Bulldogs ranked fifth nationally, fell apart as the Bulldogs struggled with too many injuries and defensive miscues. But given the problems that the team faced throughout the season, Smith said he remains proud of the Bulldogs' resilience -- as evidenced by their fourth-quarter comeback Saturday against Auburn, only to suffer a heartbreaking defeat in the final minute.
“It's just a year of a few little thunderstorms. It ain't no monsoons or nothing. Ain't no typhoons. Ain't none of them going on,” Smith said. “Unfortunately we've had the injury bug, man. That's tough, not just for this season, for them players that's hurt. That's what's most important. No player wants to deal with injuries and my heart is out for them guys. ... But at the end of the day, I'm proud of everybody. I'm proud of this team and how they've fought. I don't have no complaints.”
Smith might change his tune a bit if the Bulldogs lose to Kentucky on Saturday, however. That's what happened on senior night in 2009, when receiver Rantavious Wooten caught the first two touchdown passes of his career but saw the Wildcats rally for a 34-27 victory.
Wooten shared that situation with some of his younger teammates this week.
“I was telling the guys for a little extra motivation that it was the same situation my freshman year as it was now,” Wooten said. “Game at night, Kentucky, senior night. We started off good and Kentucky came back and pulled it off. Hell of a game and ended up beating us. This right here is extra motivation. Records don't mean anything. Come out and just prepare like you're playing Alabama.”
Of course, the 2-8 Wildcats aren't close to being in top-ranked Alabama's class. As 24-point underdogs on Saturday, they shouldn't be close to Georgia's, either.
So long as the Bulldogs don't come out of the pregame ceremony with Richt and their families as emotional wrecks, they should be able to take care of business -- and Burnette does not expect emotion to be a problem.
“I feel like it's going to give us energy, honestly. For me it is at least, just understanding it's the last time I get to play between the hedges,” Burnette said. “I've wanted to play on that field and in that stadium since I was like 10 years old, so for it to be the last shot, the last go-round, it's going to be something special.”
Following Saturday's date with Kentucky -- the final game at Sanford Stadium this season -- the Bulldogs will look entirely different on offense the next time they take the field before a home crowd. And many of the players who will take over for the likes of Aaron Murray and his fellow seniors next fall also filled their spots in the fourth quarter of Georgia's 45-6 win over the Mountaineers two weekends ago.
Assuming he wins the quarterback job, Mason will be in a convenient position next season. Georgia loses seven seniors -- Murray, tight end Arthur Lynch, receivers Rantavious Wooten and Rhett McGowan and offensive linemen Chris Burnette, Kenarious Gates and Dallas Lee -- who started on offense against Auburn. And yet the returning skill-position talent surrounding the Bulldogs' next quarterback will be as impressive as that of nearly any offense in the country.
Not only will tailback Todd Gurley return for his junior season, the Bulldogs expect to get receivers Malcolm Mitchell and Justin Scott-Wesley and tailback Keith Marshall back from season-ending knee injuries that crippled the offense at points this fall. That's in addition to other returning weapons like receivers Chris Conley, Michael Bennett and Jonathon Rumph, tight end Jay Rome and tailbacks J.J. Green and Brendan Douglas and 2014 commitments Sony Michel and Nick Chubb, both of whom rank among ESPN's top eight prospects at running back.
Not a bad situation for a first-time starting quarterback who must replace the most distinguished passer in SEC history.
“We've got a lot of weapons,” redshirt freshman receiver Blake Tibbs said. “And Hutson, he don't care who's open. If they put a dog in a helmet and some equipment out there, if he was open, Hutson would throw it to him. That's one thing about Hutson: He don't care. If you're open, he's going to trust you to make the play and he's going to keep throwing to you.”
Mason certainly proved that in his lone opportunity for significant playing time this season. He hit his first eight pass attempts, connecting with the likes of Rumph, Green, freshman Reggie Davis and walk-on Kenneth Towns on his first drive. Then came further completions to Tibbs, Michael Erdman, Douglas and Rumph again before his first incomplete pass.
The common bond there? Those are mostly the players with whom Mason has regularly worked on the Bulldogs' second-team offense, so chemistry was not an issue when they hit the field.
“That group's kind of been playing together -- besides Rumph -- for a long time and a lot of when our twos go against the ones, they always seem to do well and I think there's a chemistry between those guys kind of like Aaron and Bennett and other guys,” offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said.
There's a long time between now and the reserves' time to shine. Heck, there are three games remaining this season.
That means there is plenty of time for the stars in waiting to continue to develop before the Bulldogs open the 2014 season against Clemson on Aug. 30 -- which is exactly the mentality Rumph says he's developing.
“That's what young players have got to understand,” said Rumph, who has six catches in the last three games after missing the first half of the season with a hamstring ailment. “This is your job, so every time you go to school or go to practice, you've got to work to get better. That's all I'm trying to do is keep adding stuff to my game. I've got the feel for the game, I know what I'm capable of. I'm just trying to keep adding stuff to my game.”
Mason echoed those thoughts, pointing out that while even coach Mark Richt has declared Mason as the frontrunner to win the job next season, he still must make good use of this opportunity and not just assume the job is his from the get-go.
He has the opportunity to work with what could be an extremely productive offense next season -- if he stakes a claim on the job.
“I'm not going to be na´ve. I hear about that stuff and I read some of it and stuff like that. I've always been the first to say that I believe they're just being nice,” Mason said. “I believe that I've done a good job of performing when my opportunity comes, but I've never stepped on the field in front of 90,000 and like I was saying earlier, that's different from playing in practice.
“So I enjoy the comments and I enjoy the people that have faith in me, but really myself, I just take it day-by-day and say, 'You know what, what have I proven?' because in reality I haven't proven a lot. So when that opportunity comes, hopefully I'll show up.”
Kentucky (2-8, 0-6 SEC) did indeed suffer a difficult defeat, falling 22-6 at Vanderbilt to drop its 14th consecutive conference game. The Wildcats outgained the Commodores 246-172 through three quarters, but Vandy dominated the fourth, enjoying a 141-16 yardage advantage and scoring 13 unanswered points to earn the victory.
But that was just a run-of-the-mill loss compared to the gut-wrenching circumstances by which Georgia lost. The Bulldogs were on the verge of getting blown out early, only to slowly creep back into the game. Then Aaron Murray and the Georgia offense caught fire late, scoring three straight touchdowns and rolling up 216 yards of offense in the fourth quarter alone, only to have Ricardo Louis grab a deflected pass and score the game-winning touchdown on a fourth-down, desperation heave by Nick Marshall.
The loss eliminated Georgia (6-4 overall, 4-3 SEC) from contention in the SEC East and forced the Bulldogs to focus on lesser goals instead of representing the division for a third straight season in the SEC championship game.
“The season isn't over with. We will approach it just like any other game,” said Rantavious Wooten, one of seven seniors who started against Auburn, along with fellow receiver Rhett McGowan, Murray, offensive linemen Chris Burnette, Kenarious Gates and Dallas Lee, and tight end Arthur Lynch. “It's going to be my last game in Sanford Stadium, so we will have to talk to the young guys and tell them to keep the faith and keep fighting.”
There is also the matter of reaching the best bowl possible. Although Georgia's options aren't particularly promising -- the majority of Sunday's bowl projections favor the Bulldogs to play in either the Gator or Music City bowls -- that possibility was off the table for Kentucky weeks ago.
The Wildcats, however, have given Georgia fits in recent years, so the Bulldogs likely can't afford a flat effort. Georgia is 5-2 against Kentucky dating back to a 24-20 loss in Lexington in 2006 -- one of four times in that seven-game stretch where the outcome has been decided by seven points or less.
Considering how Georgia has struggled to finish off opponents -- Saturday was only the most recent heart-stopper for a Bulldogs team that is setting an historically bad pace on defense -- that has to be a cause for concern.
In fact, Georgia's defensive shortcomings were the subject of multiple questions Richt faced on his Sunday teleconference, as Todd Grantham's defense is on pace to set new program marks for most points allowed and most yards allowed.
The 2009 team surrendered 337 points, which is a program high for a season of 12-plus games. This year's team, which is surrendering 30.2 points per game, has already allowed 302 points with three games to play (Kentucky, Georgia Tech and a bowl game). Likewise, the 2013 Bulldogs are on pace to surrender 5,029.7 yards -- potentially just the second time in school history that Georgia allowed 5,000-plus yards after last season's bunch surrendered 5,009 in 14 games.
“Here's what I say: I say we're a team here at Georgia and we're going to keep coaching and keep trying to make improvements and corrections on everything we do, in all phases of the game,” Richt said when asked to rate his level of satisfaction with the defensive coaching staff's performance.
Such a response is common under these circumstances for Richt, who is rarely willing to discuss his concerns publicly. Grantham's defense is preparing to face teams that rank 104th (Kentucky, 349.2 yards per game) and 53rd (Georgia Tech, 432.2) nationally in total offense, so the Bulldogs should have an opportunity to improve their underwhelming defensive stats before the season ends.
It would be much easier to focus on such necessary improvements had safeties Tray Matthews or Josh Harvey-Clemons managed to knock down Auburn's last-gasp touchdown pass to preserve Georgia's comeback win. The Bulldogs would still be alive in the East race and would have a third win against a top-10 opponent this season instead of grasping at less-appealing methods to motivate themselves for their home finale against Kentucky.
That's Richt and company's unique challenge this week after a defeat that could naturally cause lingering dejection -- and the coach said he plans to focus on the positive as best he can.
“We've got to do a good job of, again, pointing out all the positive things that happened and building on those types of things, because there were a lot of tremendous things that happened in the game,” Richt said. “And then make sure we learn from whatever mistakes we had, correct them, have a plan for that, and then we have to get the new game plan in.”
Good week for a slow start: Georgia started fast and finished slow last week against Florida. But while the Bulldogs were stumbling out of the gate against Appalachian State on Saturday, next week's opponent, Auburn, was running circles around Tennessee at Neyland Stadium. Georgia turned it into the blowout everyone expected in the second half -- outscoring the Mountaineers 31-0 and outgaining them 353 yards to 59 -- but it's clear that the Bulldogs can't afford such an uneven performance next Saturday on the Plains. The Tigers' offense is likely too explosive for the Bulldogs to wait until the second half to find a rhythm.
Run defense is sound: Georgia's defense struggled a bit in the first quarter, but even then its run defense remained solid. The Bulldogs surrendered 32 rushing yards on 32 attempts, including minus-6 on 18 attempts in the second half. That's one of the few encouraging signs entering next week's visit to Auburn. The Tigers picked up 444 yards on the ground against Tennessee -- 214 by ex-Bulldog Nick Marshall and 117 by running back Tre Mason -- and came into Saturday's games as the SEC's rushing leader at 306.2 yards per game. But the Bulldogs entered the day ranked fourth in the league against the run and lowered their per-game average from 137.8 to 126 yards allowed per game.
Offense is in good hands: Georgia fans were no doubt excited Saturday when they contemplated the Bulldogs' 2014 offense even without Aaron Murray, who broke the SEC's career touchdown passes record against Appalachian State when he hit magic No. 115. Junior Hutson Mason hit his first eight pass attempts and passed for 160 yards in the fourth quarter -- 988 of which came on four completions to juco transfer Jonathon Rumph, who made his first career receptions -- as the Bulldogs poured it on in the second half. With Murray, receiver Rantavious Wooten and tight end Arthur Lynch standing as the top departing senior skill players, Mason and company looked like they can still put up big numbers next fall.
Rantavious Wooten: Although Georgia's offense struggled early, senior receiver Wooten delivered one of the top performances of his career. He opened Georgia's first touchdown drive with a 23-yard grab and capped it with a 35-yard scoring reception, and later added a 33-yard grab on a third-quarter field-goal drive. Wooten finished with four catches for a career-high 104 yards.
Ray Drew: The junior defensive end recorded his team-high sixth sack of the season and recorded two tackles for loss to reach eight for the season and move within one of Jordan Jenkins' team lead. Drew also knocked down a Kameron Bryant pass at the line of scrimmage.
Jordan Jenkins: The sophomore outside linebacker didn't record a sack or a tackle for a loss, but he came up with a couple of big plays on Saturday. Appalachian State drove for field goals on each of its first two drives, and it was looking for three more points to conclude its third possession when Jenkins blocked Drew Stewart's 49-yard kick early in the second quarter. Jenkins also picked up a Marcus Cox fumble and returned it to the Appalachian State 42-yard line, setting up a fourth-quarter touchdown drive. That was one of two takeaways for a Georgia defense that came in with the fewest turnovers gained (seven) in the SEC.
ATHENS, Ga. -- Once his Georgia team took control in the second half of its 45-6 win against Appalachian State on Saturday, coach Mark Richt admittedly had one eye on the score from the Auburn-Tennessee game.
The Bulldogs' next opponent, No. 9 Auburn -- led by former UGA cornerback Nick Marshall, now the Tigers' quarterback -- was thrashing the Volunteers for 444 rushing yards in a 55-23 win. Marshall accounted for 214 of those rushing yards, running for two touchdowns and passing for another.
That adds more intrigue to the matchup next weekend in Auburn, with the Tigers (9-1, 5-1 SEC) and Georgia (6-3, 4-2) both battling to stay alive in their respective division races -- and Marshall needing a win against his former teammates to keep his team's hopes alive.
“It's a little weird, but I knew whenever he was here that he was a player, and now someone that could have been helping, you're having to try to stop him,” said UGA defensive end Ray Drew, who was a member of Marshall's 2011 signing class at Georgia. “He's having a heck of a year over there, so hopefully he'll have a soft spot seeing that Georgia was the place he signed initially.”
Entering Saturday's games, Auburn led the SEC in rushing at 306.2 yards per game, with Marshall serving as the trigger man for an offense that has regained its bite with Gus Malzahn back on the Plains.
Marshall -- whom Richt dismissed after the 2011 season for breaking team rules -- elected to join Malzahn as a transfer from Garden City Community College.
Just like that, Auburn is once again among the nation's most productive offenses and should provide a major test for a Georgia defense that has made progress since a troubling start to the season.
“It's going to be a challenge, I don't know about fun. As coaches you always like challenges,” Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said. “They're believing and they're playing with confidence right now. Their personnel probably fits better what they do now relative to what they did last year. And I think that's a good example of how it's important to get the right people in your system.”
As for Saturday's win, Grantham's defense got off to a slow start, allowing Appalachian State to convert 4 of 6 third down opportunities and control the clock for over 11 minutes. The Mountaineers (2-8) were able to turn those early drives into just two field goals, however, before Grantham's defense awakened.
Georgia limited the Mountaineers to 3-of-12 on third down the rest of the way and 59 total yards (including minus-6 rushing on 18 attempts) in the second half.
Georgia has not allowed an opponent to drive from its own territory to score a touchdown since the second quarter of the Vanderbilt game, a streak that spans 159 minutes of game time.
“The bottom line is once we got through the script, so to speak, of those gadget [plays] and kind of got a feel for how they were running their routes relative to the formations, we pretty much shut them down -- and we didn't give up a touchdown before we did it,” Grantham said. “So anytime you hold a team out of the end zone, I'm going to be happy.”
Georgia led just 14-6 at halftime, with both touchdowns coming on Aaron Murray touchdown passes -- one to Rantavious Wooten, who had a career-high 104 receiving yards, and the other to Michael Bennett.
The second-quarter pass to Bennett gave Murray 115 career touchdown passes, breaking Florida great Danny Wuerffel's SEC career record.
“It definitely is a huge honor to be up there,” said Murray, who passed for 281 yards in his 50th career start. “I'm lucky enough to have played four years here. I think that's the biggest thing: you have to be able to go somewhere and play for a significant amount of time, and I've had that opportunity here to play for now my fourth straight year in a great offense that really allows me to throw the ball around and make plays.”
The Bulldogs poured it on with 31 second-half points -- Todd Gurley, J.J. Green and Brendan Douglas all scored on 2-yard runs and Hutson Mason hit Kenneth Towns for a 3-yard touchdown pass -- but it was the defense's play that is the bigger area of interest with Auburn's explosive offense on deck next week.
The glimmer of hope for Georgia's defense is that the Bulldogs might have struggled overall, but Auburn's strength -- running the ball -- is also the area where Grantham's defense has been the most stout. They came in ranked fourth in the SEC, allowing 137.8 rushing yards per game before limiting Appalachian State to 32 yards on 32 attempts.
Now they know their chances of victory likely hinge on containing a player that Grantham initially recruited to help his defense.
“He's big, he's physical. We thought he would be a good player and felt like he could contribute to us being an SEC competitive team defensively,” Grantham said of Marshall. “So we'll obviously get ready for him come Sunday.”
“I was kind of bummed because I feel like every time in early October, I'm out,” Bennett said after making five catches for 59 yards in Saturday's 23-20 win against Florida. “But it was good to come back in this November game. Freshman year when I was here, it was awesome to get a win, to come back and beat them. There's no better feeling than beating the Gators.”
For his injury-depleted position group, it was awesome to get one of its most important players back on the field. The Bulldogs passed for a season-low 114 yards in their previous game, a loss to Vanderbilt, with Bennett sidelined temporarily and Justin Scott-Wesley and Malcolm Mitchell out for the season with ACL tears.
Things weren't completely back to normal against Florida. Chris Conley was still out with an ankle sprain suffered in the Vandy game and Scott-Wesley and Mitchell obviously won't be back until 2014, but Bennett and returning tailback Todd Gurley both contributed heavily in the passing game and junior college transfer Jonathon Rumph played for the first time after a hamstring ailment forced him to miss the first half of the season.
Regaining some of their weapons, with Conley still expected to return this season, has the Bulldogs thinking that things are looking up.
“We're going to improve every week, improve every day, really,” said senior receiver Rantavious Wooten. “We're going to exceed everybody's expectations, because some people have said whatever about us because we lost some guys, but in this locker room, we know what we're capable of.”
Conley's return won't occur this Saturday against Appalachian State, according to Bulldogs coach Mark Richt. The following week's game against Auburn might be a long shot.
“I would say it's very doubtful for him to be playing this week,” Richt said on his Monday call-in show. “I would hope that he'll be able to play against Auburn, but even that's kind of hard to say right now. He's still on crutches and has got a long ways to go. Certainly he won't be ready this week.”
Regardless, the Bulldogs moved the ball much more effectively through the air against the Gators – even though Richt said Florida's secondary features “the best cover corners in the league and maybe in the country.”
Bennett played a major role in that improvement, as did senior Rhett McGowan, who made a 23-yard catch in the final seconds of the second quarter to set up a Marshall Morgan field goal at the end of the first half.
McGowan made just as big a play in the waning minutes of the fourth quarter, when he caught a third-and-7 pass from Aaron Murray and squirted between a group of Florida defenders for a 7-yard gain that extended the Bulldogs' game-ending drive.
“That last play where he threw it to me, it was just my number was called and it's a play that we'd been practicing all week and we were able to execute it,” said McGowan, who had three catches for 43 yards. “I'm so thankful we got the first down and we were able to get one more first down and finish the game out.”
With Conley still out and Rumph finally able to play, Richt said the Bulldogs hope he can make a long-awaited impact. Rumph was the top receiver and No. 7 overall prospect on ESPN's Junior College 100 when he enrolled in January, but is still waiting to make his first career catch.
If he can establish himself before Conley returns, Georgia's receiving corps can still finish the season as a productive group despite the injuries that created some extremely lean times for a couple weeks in October.
“Hopefully we can get some balls thrown his direction just so he can get excited about catching some balls again,” Richt said of Rumph. “It's been a while for him and you catch a bunch in practice and you hope to have a shot to catch a few in the games.
“He was here in the spring and had a really good spring game and I'm sure he's anxious to get a chance to catch a ball. So we've still got to keep working on assignments and blocking and all that kind of thing, but hopefully there'll be an opportunity to get a ball thrown his way, or two or three or whatever. Hopefully he'll have a big day.”
There was one problem: over time, that became an impossible proposition.
Tailback: Todd Gurley (1,385 rushing yards, 17 TDs in 2012), Keith Marshall (759-8).
Receiver: Malcolm Mitchell (40 catches for 572 yards last season), Michael Bennett (24-345 in five games last fall), Chris Conley (20-342), Justin Scott-Wesley (made win-clinching touchdown catches against South Carolina and LSU early this season).
After season-ending injuries to Mitchell, Marshall and Scott-Wesley and ailments that kept Gurley and Bennett out for three and two games, respectively, here's the travel roster Bobo was working with on Saturday against Vanderbilt, when he called an ultra-conservative game in hopes of slipping out of Nashville with a win:
Tailback: Freshmen J.J. Green (313 rushing yards, 6.7 yards per carry this season) and Brendan Douglas (218, 4.2), walk-ons Brandon Harton and Kyle Karempelis (no carries between them), Gurley (who is still injured and watched from the sideline).
Receiver: Conley (team-high 30-418 this season), Rantavious Wooten (14-174), true freshman Reggie Davis (7-189), Rhett McGowan (7-70), Jonathon Rumph (who just returned from a hamstring injury that has sidelined him for nearly the entire season, but did not play against Vandy), walk-ons Kenneth Towns (no catches) and Michael Erdman (1-6).
With a full complement of skill players, Bobo has certainly never been afraid to call for the deep ball, and quarterback Aaron Murray hasn't been afraid to throw it. Georgia was actually one of the nation's most successful teams at generating big plays last season when Gurley and Marshall were breaking long runs and the Bulldogs' assortment of wideouts was getting behind the secondary for long completions.
According to ESPN Stats & Info, Georgia led the nation last season with 31 touchdowns that covered 20 yards or more and ranked fifth with 63 completions of at least 20-plus yards. And this season initially looked to be more of the same, with 37 plays of 20-plus, six touchdowns of 20-plus and 27 completions of 20-plus through the first five games.
It has been a completely different story over the last two weeks, however. The explosive play did not exist in the 31-27 loss to Vandy -- Georgia's longest play of the game was a 17-yard completion to Green -- and the offense mustered only a paltry 221 yards against a Commodores defense that gave up 51 points to Missouri its last time out.
Murray completed 16 passes for 114 yards, just five more completions than his career low, and attempted only two throws that covered at least 15 yards. Both were incompletions.
The previous week's loss against Missouri was not as underwhelming. The Bulldogs finished with 454 total yards and Murray was 25-for-45 for 290 yards, but nearly half of his completions (11) came on dump-off passes to Green and Douglas, as Bobo and his quarterback elected to dink and dunk to their checkdown receiving options against Missouri's zone defense.
Green broke a 57-yard run and Wooten made a 48-yard reception, but explosive play and aggression was largely lacking in that loss, as well.
The long ball was a key element in the offense in the first five games, with Murray going 21 for 37 on throws of 15 yards or more, averaging 17.8 yards per attempt and connecting for five touchdowns versus no interceptions. He was 4-for-11 on such throws against Vandy (0-2) and Missouri (4-9), but averaged just 8.7 yards per attempt with no touchdowns and two picks.
Georgia still has only six touchdowns that covered 20 yards or more, leaving the Bulldogs in a tie for 74th nationally after leading in that category last fall.
The good news for Georgia is that Gurley and Bennett are expected back for the Bulldogs' next game, Nov. 2 against Florida. Perhaps more than any other player on the roster, even Murray, Gurley is the linchpin in Georgia's offensive explosiveness -- and his presence allows Bobo to call a completely different game than what we just witnessed in Nashville.
The sophomore back's ability to run physically between the tackles forces opponents to funnel defenders into the box to slow him down. And his formidable speed makes Gurley a threat to break a run for a big gain at any time.
The sophomore already has seven touchdowns of 20 yards or more in 18 career games.
Aside from their occasional case of fumble-itis, Green and Douglas have done a fine job in Gurley and Marshall's absence, but they can't replace what Gurley brings to the lineup. If another running back anywhere in the country is capable of that, he's on a mighty short list.
Now will Gurley make a big enough difference against Florida? We shall see. He has been on the shelf since Sept. 28 and hasn't been able to practice for three weeks. But if he returns with fresh legs and his injured ankle has healed to the point that the Gurley of old takes the field in Jacksonville, Georgia's chances of victory -- and its chances of generating big plays on offense -- will increase exponentially.
But the Bulldogs have to win today first, and that has been more difficult for recent Georgia teams than one might expect. In two of Georgia's last three trips to Vandy, the outcome hung in the balance up to the very last play of the game. Considering how every Georgia game this season was up for grabs well into the second half, today's contest in Nashville could very possibly give Bulldogs fans further heart palpitations.
Record watch: Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray and Vanderbilt receiver Jordan Matthews could both claim SEC career records before today's game is over. Murray will almost certainly break former Florida quarterback Tim Tebow's career record for total offense, as Murray's career total of 12,203 yards is just 29 behind Tebow's mark. Murray is also two touchdown passes behind ex-Gators quarterback Danny Wuerffel's SEC-high mark of 114. Meanwhile, Matthews trails former Georgia wideout Terrence Edwards' SEC career record of 3,093 receiving yards by 97. He had 119 receiving yards in the Commodores' blowout loss to Georgia last season.
Offense losing power: It's no secret that Georgia's offense lost some of its effectiveness when tailbacks Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall and receivers Malcolm Mitchell, Justin Scott-Wesley and Michael Bennett dropped out of the lineup with an array of injuries. Georgia might get Gurley and Bennett back for the Florida game, but the rest are out for the season, forcing the Bulldogs to identify new skill players to fill their spots. But it's still a work in progress. Georgia has 37 touchdowns of at least 20 yards since the start of last season -- the most in the SEC and third most in the FBS. The Bulldogs had at least one such touchdown in each of the first four games this season, but none in the last two since the injuries hit the lineup. Among the candidates to pick up the big-play slack: tailback J.J. Green, who had a 57-yard run last week against Missouri; wideout Rantavious Wooten -- who had a 48-yard catch last week -- receiver Reggie Davis, who hauled in a program-record 98-yard touchdown pass against North Texas, and Chris Conley, who has five career touchdown catches that covered 25 yards or more.
Matthews going long: Matthews leads the SEC in receptions per game (7.8) and trails only Texas A&M's Mike Evans with his average of 118.2 receiving yards per game. Most troubling for a Georgia secondary that is 12th in the league in pass defense (259.3 ypg) and 13th in yards allowed per pass attempt (8.0) is Matthews' ability to haul in catches for big gains. Since the start of last season, the Vandy receiver has 51 receptions that covered at least 15 yards -- the most for any wideout in the FBS.
Third-down trouble: It's no secret among Georgia fans that the Bulldogs' young defense has struggled on third down this season. The Bulldogs rank 13th in the SEC and 97th nationally, allowing opponents to convert 43.7 percent (38 of 87) of such opportunities. Georgia has forced a three-and-out 30.1 percent of the time (22 in 73 opponent drives), which ranks 94th nationally. What might make the issue seem even worse among Georgia fans is that the Bulldogs had been so effective in that department over the previous two seasons. Between 2011 and 2012, Georgia forced three-and-outs on 43.9 percent of opponent drives (161 of 367), which ranked fourth nationally. Unfortunately for Vanderbilt, the Commodores haven't been much better. They're 10th in the SEC and 82nd nationally in third-down defense, allowing opponents to convert 41.4 percent (36 of 87). Making matters even worse for both teams is that their offenses haven't been particularly effective on third down, either. Georgia is 12th in the league in third-down conversions (37.3 percent) and Vandy is eighth (42.1 percent). Whichever team finds a way to be more efficient in those situations today might very well wind up as the winner.
Fun with QBR: Here's a somewhat bizarre stat for Georgia's maligned secondary. It has actually held the last four opposing quarterbacks below their season average in ESPN's new Total Quarterback Rating metric. Last week, Missouri's James Franklin posted a 70.6 adjusted QBR, his lowest in any game this season. In previous weeks, Tennessee's Justin Worley scored a 59.0, LSU's Zach Mettenberger a 90.2 and North Texas' Derek Thompson a 36.3. QBR rates quarterbacks on a 0-100 scale where 50 is average. Top quarterbacks are in the upper 80s and 90s, and the adjusted QBR accounts for the strength of opposing defenses faced. Vanderbilt's Austyn Carta-Samuels ranks 88th nationally with a 50.2 adjusted QBR. He has struggled over the last four games, with his 48.1 adjusted QBR in a loss to Missouri ranking as his highest score in that stretch. Murray posted his lowest adjusted QBR of the season (82.9) last week against Missouri. He ranks third nationally with a 93.3 adjusted QBR this season.
“People will be like, 'Yo, if Todd was there, we probably would have won the game. He probably would have had 200 rushing yards my himself,' ” Green said. “I'm like, 'That don't matter at all.' ”
Such confidence is a necessity in order for the freshmen to be productive players, but they also accept that their contributions will be measured by the final results -- and Georgia's offense simply hasn't clicked like it did earlier in the season before numerous injuries hampered the Bulldogs in recent weeks.
“We've still got to win” Green said. “It doesn't matter what we do. We just want to win, man.”
By and large, the freshmen did enough to help Georgia win both games where they've carried the load in the running game. Green rushed for 129 yards against Tennessee, while Douglas scored a touchdown and made a key reception on the Bulldogs' game-tying drive at the end of regulation. Then Green added 87 rushing yards and 42 receiving and Douglas had 70 rushing and 43 receiving against Mizzou, although Douglas also had a critical second-quarter fumble at the Tigers' 6-yard line.
“I'm disappointed,” Douglas said. “I had that turnover right before the half. I tried to go out and make up for it in the second half, but you really can't make up for something like that. It was disappointing and I'm disappointed in myself.”
That's the one obvious mistake the two freshmen have made, but they have otherwise helped Georgia's running game remain productive, even if they can't fully replace a back like Gurley, who surely ranks among the nation's absolute best runners.
“We're not paralyzed or handcuffed with those guys in there,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “They do a good job. I'm very proud of them.”
They have reason to be proud of themselves, as well.
Green was an early enrollee who was initially slated to play receiver, although injury issues during spring practice led Richt's staff to try him out in the backfield. Sure enough, the 5-foot-9 back's tough running and slippery moves impressed his coaches and teammates, and he seems to have found a home at running back. Douglas didn't arrive until the summer, but his battering-ram running style instantly turned heads, as well.
“We were out there even before Todd and Keith got hurt thinking, 'Hey man, any time could be our chance. We prepared for this. When we get out there, just ball, and that's all we could do,' ” Green said.
Gurley has missed two full games, plus most of the Sept. 28 game against LSU when he sprained his left ankle at the end of a second-quarter run. He was listed as limited on Monday's injury report, with Richt saying afterward on his call-in show that, “I'd be surprised if he could practice full speed tomorrow. It truly is day-to-day and he's getting closer. Can I sit here and say he's going to play in the game? I really don't know and can't predict that right now.”
If Gurley can't go in Saturday's visit to Vanderbilt, the two freshmen once again must carry the running game against a Commodores defense that ranks 10th in the SEC against the run by allowing 168.5 yards per game.
Obviously a healthy Gurley would provide a lift to Georgia's offense, but the Bulldogs don't seem to be afraid of the prospect of more Green and Douglas until Gurley returns.
“They've been preparing for their whole life,” senior receiver Rantavious Wooten said. “Even in practice, they've been put in position to make plays and do what they need to do for the offense. At the end of the day, you never know when your number's going to be called. I definitely feel like some young guys are ready for that role whenever their number's called, but it didn't turn out in our favor [against Missouri].”
J.J. Green: The freshman running back earned his first start Saturday with Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall unavailable, and Green earned his keep. He ran 12 times for 87 yards -- good for an average of 7.2 yards per carry -- and caught five passes for 42 yards. In the last two games, Green has accounted for 262 yards of total offense.
Ray Drew: Saturday was far from a banner day for Georgia's defense, but the junior defensive end continued his recent emergence with two more sacks against Missouri. Both Drew sacks came during Georgia's third-quarter comeback -- a third-down stop when the Tigers needed one yard to pick up a first down and another on second down for an 11-yard loss that led to a Missouri punt. Drew now has a team-high five sacks, all of which came in the last three games.
Rantavious Wooten: The fifth-year senior receiver is also playing a bigger role because of teammates' injuries, and he also delivered on Saturday. Wooten caught a 48-yard pass in a second-quarter field goal drive and hauled in a third-quarter touchdown pass that trimmed Missouri's lead to 28-20. Wooten finished with a career-high 83 yards on four catches, a week after catching two touchdowns -- including one that helped tie the game with 5 seconds to play -- against Tennessee.
Another marquee QB battle: This is getting to be old hat for Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray. For the third time in six games, Murray leads his team against a quarterback who ranks in the top 30 in ESPN's Total QBR. Today it's Missouri's James Franklin, who enters with a 78.7 score, good for 24th nationally. Murray -- who is third nationally with a 95.6 Total QBR -- outgunned LSU's Zach Mettenberger, whose 92.3 score is fifth nationally, and lost to Clemson's Tajh Boyd, who is 27th at 77.8.
Throwing long: In last week's overtime win at Tennessee, Murray ended a streak of seven straight games in which he had completed at least half of his throws of 15 or more yards. He completed just 28.6 percent on throws of 15-plus last week and averaged 5.3 yards per attempt after completing 63.3 percent, averaging 20.7 yards per attempt and notching five touchdowns and no interceptions on such throws in the first four games. With three standout receivers at his disposal, Franklin has greatly improved in that department this season. He has raised his completion percentage on throws of 15-plus from 33 percent last year -- and he was just 1-for-6 against Georgia last season -- to 51 this year. He's averaging 15 yards per completion on such throws and has six touchdowns and six interceptions. He averaged 9.8 yards per attempt on throws of 15-plus last year and tossed four touchdowns and four interceptions.
Third-down conversions: A strength for Missouri's offense matches up well against a glaring weakness for Georgia's defense. The Tigers are converting 53.8 percent of their third-down opportunities for first downs or scores. That figure ranks third in the SEC and ninth nationally. Georgia, meanwhile, has struggled closing out defensive series, even in third-and-long situations. The Bulldogs are allowing opponents to convert 44 percent of their third downs. That ranks last in the SEC and 99th nationally.
Shutting down the run: Both teams defended the run well when these clubs met a season ago. Missouri has to like its chances today, particularly if All-SEC tailback Todd Gurley remains sidelined with an ankle injury. Replacing Gurley and injured backfield mate Keith Marshall would be freshmen J.J. Green -- who ran for 129 yards last week at Tennessee -- Brendan Douglas and possibly A.J. Turman, who has not played yet this season. Meanwhile, Missouri brings the SEC's top rushing attack into today's game. With Franklin (55.6 ypg) and running backs Russell Hansbrough (75.8), Henry Josey (61.4) and Marcus Murphy (58.6) sharing the load, the Tigers are averaging 258.8 rushing yards per game. Nearly the only thing Georgia's defense has done somewhat effectively is defend the run. The Bulldogs are allowing 139.2 rushing yards per game -- sixth in the SEC -- and 3.8 yards per carry. Missouri is third against the run at 118.6 ypg allowed.
Wideout replacements: In addition to Marshall and possibly Gurley, the Bulldogs also will be without three of their top receivers today: Malcolm Mitchell, Justin Scott-Wesley and Michael Bennett. That places a bigger burden on leading receiver Chris Conley (20 catches, 318 yards) and a team of role players like senior Rantavious Wooten, who had only two catches this season before hauling in six passes, two for touchdowns, last week against Tennessee. The Bulldogs also have Rhett McGowan (6-58), Reggie Davis (4-167) and tight ends Arthur Lynch (11-169) and Jay Rome (3-43) among pass-catchers who have played this season. Coach Mark Richt said during the week that redshirt freshman Blake Tibbs and walk-ons Kenny Townes and Michael Erdman might also be names to watch. None of them have caught a pass yet in college.
Scene and Heard: Top 10 Predictions
TBD Temple Vanderbilt TBD Texas A&M South Carolina 8:00 PM ET Boise State Ole Miss
TBD Arkansas Auburn TBD Idaho Florida TBD Clemson Georgia TBD Tennessee-Martin Kentucky TBD South Dakota State Missouri TBD Southern Miss Mississippi State 3:30 PM ET West Virginia Alabama 9:00 PM ET LSU Wisconsin