Georgia Bulldogs: Rhett McGowan

Turnover common for Ball, McClendon

December, 26, 2013
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Pardon Bryan McClendon if he took a pessimistic approach before the fall even arrived, but his five seasons as Georgia's running backs coach have permanently ingrained that attitude into his coaching outlook.

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.

[+] EnlargeTodd Gurley, Ahmad Christian
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsTodd Gurley, who has rushed for 903 yards this season, has been hobbled by an ankle injury this season.
“That's something that we've known and we talked about before the year: it's going to be something,” McClendon said. “We didn't know what it was going to be, but it's going to be something -- just by the position and the style of play that he plays. But I do know that he probably won't be 100 percent [again] until after the year.”

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. – The first measuring stick for any senior class is championships -- and in that regard, the results for Georgia's 2013 seniors are a mixed bag.

This group won the SEC East as sophomores and juniors and fell just short of playing for a BCS championship last season before injuries crippled a 2013 team that felt it was poised to at least extend the team's run of consecutive division titles.

[+] EnlargeAaron Murray, Rhett McGowan
Scott Clarke/ESPN ImagesAaron Murray, Rhett McGowan and Georgia's seniors have fared well against the team's biggest rivals.
Nonetheless, a secondary measure for Georgia's seniors is how their class fared against the program's biggest rivals, and the 2013 bunch has a chance to go out on an extremely high note. Entering Saturday's game against in-state rival Georgia Tech, this senior class is 12-3 over a four-year period against Tech, Florida, Auburn and Tennessee.

"Growing up watching Georgia football, you understand that those are really the big four teams that you want to beat," said senior offensive lineman Chris Burnette, a lifelong Georgia fan. "You want to beat Tech first and foremost; you always want to beat Florida, always got to beat Auburn, because it's the longest-running rivalry in the South and all that stuff. And you always want to beat Tennessee, because we just don't like orange.

"It's definitely good. As a senior class, it's awesome to see that we've been able to hold our own against them and hopefully just finish it out well."

In fact, these Bulldogs have held their own against Georgia's big four as well as any senior class since Tennessee came onto the schedule as an every-year rival in 1992. Their 12 wins match the win total by last season's seniors, who were 12-4, as the most against those rivals by any Georgia senior class in that time frame.

Before last season, the best four-year record for any senior class in that period was 10-6 -- a mark set by Georgia's 2004, 2005 and 2011 classes. And the 2013 seniors can pass all of them with a win against the Yellow Jackets on Saturday.

"It's going to be a special game knowing that it's our last one against Tech," senior receiver Rhett McGowan said. "That's always a heated rivalry, a little chippy in that game, but it's a lot of fun. So we're excited to get to go there and play them knowing it's going to be our last regular-season game, and it'll to be another emotional night. But after the first snap, that all goes away and you just play football and hope to get the win."

These seniors will finish their careers 4-0 against Tennessee and could make it 4-0 against Tech with a win Saturday. Their heartbreaking loss to Auburn two weekends ago meant that they will finish 2-2 against the Bulldogs' oldest rival. And perhaps the highlight of them all is that they posted a 3-1 mark against Florida, making them Georgia's first senior class since 1990 to enjoy a winning record against the Gators.

Another highlight is that they beat all four rivals in both 2011 and 2012, marking the first times since 1981 that Georgia swept those four games in a season.

The Auburn loss means they won't pull that feat for a third straight season -- and the senior class' 1-3 record against South Carolina means that budding rivalry should join the big four in importance over the foreseeable future -- but the 2013 class still can finish on a happy note with a win in Saturday's regular-season finale, which certainly beats the alternative.

"You never want to end your career with a loss to Tech. So that's definitely something that's not going to be hard to get up for," Burnette said. "We understand what they bring on offense and what they bring on defense and all that type of stuff, so we're going to be ready."

Murray's injury puts damper on home finale

November, 24, 2013
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ATHENS, Ga. -- Georgia sent its seniors out the right way with a 59-17 pummeling of Kentucky on Saturday night, but the Bulldogs lost perhaps their most valuable senior of all.

Quarterback Aaron Murray -- who has started every game of his career and on Saturday tied David Greene's school record for most career starts by a non-kicker (52) -- injured his left knee in the second quarter and needed assistance to reach the locker room.

Bulldogs coach Mark Richt said he does not expect Murray to play next Saturday against Georgia Tech, but would not rule him out for the Bulldogs' bowl game, pending the results of an MRI on the injured knee.

“It just was hard to have a lot of fun,” Richt said after the game. “Even right now, I'm glad we won and I'm really proud of how we did, but it's kind of a crummy feeling right now when you think about what Aaron is going through.”

Prior to the injury, Saturday's game was shaping up as a glorious going-away party for the senior quarterback in his final game at Sanford Stadium.

He was the centerpiece of an emotional pregame ceremony to honor Georgia's 28 departing seniors, with the home crowd offering a raucous ovation when the SEC's all-time leading passer was the final Bulldog to be introduced. Murray had tossed four touchdown passes (he finished 18-for-23 for 183 yards) and in the first quarter became the first SEC quarterback to pass for 3,000-plus yards in four seasons.

[+] EnlargeAaron Murray
AP Photo/John BazemoreAaron Murray will have an MRI on his left knee to determine the extent of his injury.
But Kentucky defensive lineman Za'Darius Smith slammed Murray to the ground after a pass to Rhett McGowan deflected off the senior receiver and floated to Wildcats linebacker Khalid Henderson at the Kentucky 2-yard line. Murray immediately motioned to the training staff that he needed assistance, and they walked him directly to the locker room with Murray struggling to put any weight on his left leg.

He left Sanford Stadium during the third quarter to undergo an MRI at Athens' St. Mary's Hospital and did not return.

“You could tell in his body language he was hurt,” backup quarterback Hutson Mason said. “It wasn't the same Murray.”

And it was yet another injury in a fall where the Bulldogs (7-4, 5-3 SEC) already lost tailback Keith Marshall and receivers Malcolm Mitchell and Justin Scott-Wesley for the season, while tailback Todd Gurley and receivers Chris Conley and Michael Bennett also missed multiple games with an assortment of injuries.

“He did mention that was about how our season has gone as far as injuries and everything,” Richt said of his conversation with Murray at halftime. “It was tough.”

Mason did an admirable job as Murray's replacement -- he finished 13-for-19 for 189 yards and one touchdown, plus a 1-yard scoring plunge -- but Murray's injury put a major damper on what should have been a happy final outing between the hedges for the seniors.

“Seeing Aaron go down, that was tough. That's one of my best friends. He was one of my groomsmen at my wedding, and seeing him go down, I never want him to go down because most of the time it's my fault,” said senior offensive guard Chris Burnette, whose wife, Arielle, was one of Murray's classmates at Tampa (Fla.) Plant High School.

The Bulldogs quickly made it clear that there would be no lingering hangover in the wake of last week's devastating 43-38 loss at Auburn, when the Tigers scored the game-winning touchdown with 25 seconds to play. Georgia needed only three plays to score its first touchdown -- on a 9-yard pass from Murray to McGowan -- and led Kentucky 21-0 after its first three possessions.

Murray and Gurley were the stars of the early onslaught, with the pair hooking up for a 16-yard touchdown where Gurley soared into the end zone -- reminding Bulldogs fans of Knowshon Moreno's memorable 2008 touchdown dive against Arizona State -- that put Georgia up 14-0.

By the time Gurley left in the third quarter of the blowout, he had rushed eight times for 77 yards, caught five passes for 90 yards and scored two touchdowns.

Not to be miss out on the fun, Georgia's defense posted perhaps its finest outing of the season. A week after surrendering 566 yards to Auburn's potent offense, the Bulldogs held Kentucky (2-9, 0-7) to 211 yards -- 69 of which came on Dyshawn Mobley's first-quarter touchdown run, with 30 more coming on a Maxwell Smith touchdown pass to Javess Blue against the defensive reserves late in the fourth quarter.

“We got some turnovers, too, which was good to see,” said Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, whose defense recovered three of Kentucky's six fumbles, with those turnovers leading to 21 Bulldogs points. “Kentucky has not turned the ball over a lot.”

Richt credited the seniors for holding the team together through the spate of injuries and a disappointing season that started with a top-five ranking and BCS title aspirations.

“Even though the season had certain expectations and certain hopes got dashed along the way, the leadership was great,” Richt said. “The unity of our team was rock solid because of those guys. And I've said it a couple times, this was a fun team to coach, but I think it was mostly because of the seniors and how they led this year.”

Five things: Georgia-Kentucky

November, 23, 2013
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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. -- Georgia's win on Nov. 9 against Appalachian State wasn't just one of the last times we'll see this senior-laden version of the Bulldogs offense, it also served as a sneak preview of what lies ahead.

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.

[+] EnlargeHutson Mason
Radi Nabulsi/ESPNBackup quarterback Hutson Mason is the frontrunner to start for the Bulldogs in 2014.
“I think the thing you can't get in practice is just that 95,000 [fans] with the atmosphere,” said junior Hutson Mason, Georgia's presumptive starting quarterback next season, who went 11-for-16 for 160 yards and a touchdown in the fourth quarter against Appalachian State. “Really you can get everything [else] in practice. Our coaches, they believe in putting a lot of pressure on you so when it comes to the game, you're used to that feeling. But it's definitely a different atmosphere, different jitters.”

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.”

UGA, Kentucky both look to bounce back

November, 18, 2013
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ATHENS, Ga. -- Given the way they finished in their most recent outings, it would be understandable if both Georgia and Kentucky have difficulty getting up for Saturday's game in Athens. Because at this point, neither team has much to play for aside from pride.

[+] EnlargeRicardo Louis
Shanna LockwoodRicardo Louis' catch deprived Georgia of any chance at winning the SEC East. Can the Dawgs rebound and play well against Kentucky?
“We need to be able to bounce back,” said Georgia coach Mark Richt, whose team's dramatic fourth-quarter rally went for naught when No. 6 Auburn completed a 73-yard Hail Mary in the final minute to win 43-38. “Kentucky had a tough loss, too, so both teams have to shake it off and get back ready to compete. That's the nature of the business and the nature of the game of football or competitive sports, period. You lose and you've got a game the next week or the next day, depending on the sport, and you've got to shake it off and get back to work.”

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.”

Q&A: Georgia OC Mike Bobo

November, 8, 2013
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ATHENS, Ga. -- Mike Bobo has dealt with personnel issues in seven seasons as Georgia's offensive play-caller, but never anything like this year.

[+] EnlargeAaron Murray and Mike Bobo
Paul Abell/US PresswireQuarterback Aaron Murray and offensive coordinator Mike Bobo have had some struggles due to all of Georgia's injuries.
At one point, the Bulldogs had to function with receivers Malcolm Mitchell and Justin Scott-Wesley and tailback Keith Marshall all out for the season, as well as with tailback Todd Gurley and receiver Michael Bennett temporarily sidelined. The result was back-to-back losses to Missouri and Vanderbilt, with the Bulldogs' formerly high-scoring offense lacking its usual punch.

Gurley returned in last week's 23-20 win against Florida and produced 187 yards of offense, even if he was clearly not operating at 100 percent. Nonethelesss, he and Bennett are back in the lineup and the Bulldogs' offense is inching closer to becoming as healthy as it can be for this season's stretch run.

Bobo discussed the issues the injuries created and how the Bulldogs might return to their high-scoring ways in this week's Q&A. Here's what he had to say:

Q: Aside from Gurley being back, what was the difference in the offense's improvement from Vanderbilt to Florida?

Mike Bobo: Obviously the off week helped. It gave us a chance to improve with the guys that were out there. We talked those two weeks about trust, and I think you saw a level of trust in the players that were out there, Rhett McGowan] and Brendan Douglas and just playing ball and guys laying it on the line. I'd say that would be one thing.

Q: How does Todd make your job easier?

MB: Well, he's a difference-maker. You get a guy in space and you never have the perfect call, but when you do sometimes and you've got a chance to score, he has the ability to take it to the house. There was that safety [on Gurley's 73-yard touchdown catch against Florida] and some guys might get tackled, but instead of a 25-yard gain, it was however long it was and a touchdown. If it's a 25-yard gain, great play. But then you've got to execute even more times against a very good defense. To have that explosive play and get a touchdown is a big difference.

Q: Has this season been your most challenging since you became a play-caller?

MB: With the injuries, we've had to do a lot of adjustments and change a lot of things that we've done, and it's kind of been week-to-week. The consistency of who's out there kind of affects what you do offensively. To be honest, it's been a fun one, too, because there are a lot of guys who had opportunities to make plays that might not even have been on our field in practice. They'd have been on the scout team. And it's good to see those guys succeed, to be honest.

Q: If you were going to put a finger on something that you might have done different in October, is there something you think might have made a difference?

MB: I would say probably preaching more about believing and trusting in what we got, and let's go play. That would be the No. 1 thing.

Q: What's the most important factor in the offense looking like what we saw early in the year as you guys hit the stretch run?

MB: After that Vanderbilt game, we really talked about improving and getting better and back to the basics. We've really got to work hard at the little things because there's new guys, there's not a lot of continuity and continuing to do that. Sometimes when it's later in the season, you might taper off a little bit. I think where we're at, getting some guys back, we've kind of got to ramp it back up and make sure we're all on the same page and not take anything for granted. Whereas in some years past, it might be, 'OK, these guys have got a lot of cumulative reps.' Well, guys like Bennett and Gurley don't have those cumulative reps from all the time they missed, so we've got to make up that time and make sure everybody's on the same page when the game gets here.

Bennett's return sparks UGA receivers

November, 5, 2013
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ATHENS, Ga. -- October has been a cruel month for Michael Bennett, as knee injuries suffered early in the month in each of the last two seasons knocked the receiver out of Georgia's lineup.

[+] EnlargeMichael Bennett
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsMichael Bennett looks for more yardage against Florida.
Luckily for the Bulldogs, Bennett was able to return for this month after a meniscus injury suffered in the Tennessee game cost him only two games. A year ago, an ACL tear suffered in practice the week of the South Carolina game forced Bennett to miss the remainder of the fall just as he emerged as the Bulldogs' leading receiver.

“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.”


JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Mark Richt hardly seemed to be in a celebratory mood after Georgia's 23-20 win over Florida gave him three straight victories against the Gators for the first time since he became the Bulldogs' coach in 2001.

He had just watched the Bulldogs (5-3, 4-2 SEC) nearly melt down in the second half for the second consecutive game only to be saved by a late defensive stand and a clock-eating drive that ran out the remaining time in the fourth quarter. So perhaps it's understandable that Richt felt far more relieved than jubilant.

[+] EnlargeTodd Gurley
AP Photo/Stephen MortonGeorgia RB Todd Gurley ran for a pair of TDs and helped the Bulldogs win three straight over the Gators for the first time in 24 years.
“It's because we're winning 23-3 ... and then we about lost the doggone thing,” Richt said. “That's why I'm subdued right now -- because I'm trying to get over it.”

Imagine how Will Muschamp felt. Florida's coach saw his team claw back from a 20-0 deficit at the start of the first quarter, pull within three points at the start of the fourth and then ruin its comeback bid with regrettable penalties at the end of the game.

The Gators (4-4, 3-3) would have gotten the ball back for one final possession, but defensive lineman Darious Cummings was flagged for a personal foul -- illegal hands to Georgia center David Andrews' face -- to spoil a third-down stop with barely more than a minute remaining. Despite four personal foul calls between the two sides, the resulting first down after Cummings' penalty allowed Georgia to run out the clock and earn its first three-game winning streak in the series since 1987-89.

“We did have Coach [Vince] Dooley come by and speak to our team this week,” Richt said, referring to the coach who led the UGA program from 1964-88. “That's one thing he mentioned. I didn't know the stat, but he said if we win, it would be the first time we got three in a row in like 30 years or something. I was frankly kind of embarrassed that was the truth. But that's where this series has gone. It's nice to at least, to this point, get it turned around a little bit.”

Richt has been on Muschamp's side of this rivalry, too, however. The early days of Richt's tenure saw Georgia blow numerous winnable games, including a 2002 loss that might have cost the Bulldogs a chance to play for the BCS championship. Richt was 2-8 against Florida until the Bulldogs launched their three-game winning streak in 2011, but perhaps now they have permanently removed the Florida monkey off the program's back.

“Three in a row's awesome,” said Georgia senior Aaron Murray, who threw for 258 yards and a touchdown and became just the third UGA quarterback since the 1940s to beat the Gators three times. “It's a great feeling and this is just such a great game. The environment's unbelievable. To be in that stadium, it's a true blessing. It's a great feeling to win three in a row -- something that hasn't happened in 24 years, and hopefully next year we'll keep it up.”

Saturday's win wasn't pretty by any means. In fact it was symptomatic of Georgia's season thus far, with self-inflicted wounds, costly penalties and general breakdowns combining to place what looked to be an easy victory in jeopardy. Coming off a 31-27 loss to Vanderbilt, where similar problems allowed the Commodores to close the game with a 17-0 run in the fourth quarter, Georgia had to feel as though it was experiencing deja vu against the Gators.

“We just shot ourselves in the foot. I've said that 100 times,” said Georgia receiver Michael Bennett, who had a team-high five catches for 59 yards. “It's just mental mistakes, I had a dropped pass. Stuff like that, you're going to end up having the other team start scoring points and giving them opportunities. You can't do that.”

Tailback Todd Gurley -- who scored Georgia's first two touchdowns and finished with 187 yards of total offense -- fell short on a fourth-down run at the Bulldogs' 39 in the fourth quarter, with Georgia clinging to a 23-20 lead.

Florida's Neiron Ball was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct after stopping Gurley, however, pushing the Gators back 15 yards. Their ensuing drive pushed the ball to Georgia's 43 before Bulldogs defensive coordinator Todd Grantham sent a third-down blitz at Gators quarterback Tyler Murphy.

Safety Corey Moore tracked Murphy down in the backfield for a 14-yard loss, forcing a fourth-and-26 midway through the final period that removed even the possibility that Florida would go for it on fourth down.

“I thought it was the right time to do it,” Grantham said of the decision to blitz and leave his defensive backs vulnerable in one-on-one coverage. “We had to go end the game, and that's what we did.”

Georgia took over with 8:17 to play and drove 67 yards in 15 plays -- including a huge third-and-7 conversion pass for 7 yards from Murray to Rhett McGowan and the Cummings penalty that produced another key conversion -- running out the remaining time.

The loss drops Muschamp to 0-7 in the Florida-Georgia series -- 0-4 as a Georgia player and 0-3 as the Gators' coach -- which undoubtedly creates a lonesome feeling with which Richt can identify.

Richt's team somehow held on for a win on Saturday, however, although the Bulldogs' stumbling style of late seems to be taking a toll on their coach.

“They must like it,” Richt said of Georgia's numerous games that have been decided in the waning minutes. “I don't like it. It makes you wonder if this is really a good way to make a living.”

SEC lunchtime links

November, 1, 2013
11/01/13
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We’re 24 hours away from opening kick in Week 10, so let’s take one last look around the SEC in Friday’s edition of the lunch links.
ATHENS, Ga. -- The look on Mark Richt's face when he talked about getting running back Todd Gurley back for Saturday's game against Florida was priceless.

It was like a boulder of stress rolled off his shoulders. After all, the Bulldogs have been without arguably the country's best running back for three games after Gurley went down early in the second quarter against LSU with what turned out to a debilitating ankle injury.

Georgia has had its issues all over the field, especially because of injuries, but Gurley's absence coupled with the loss of Keith Marshall for the season has contributed significantly to Georgia's 4-3 record. Getting Gurley back will give this offense a major boost and will help open up a passing game down key receivers against the Gators.

"He's, in my opinion, the best running back in the country," Georgia receiver Rhett McGowan said of Gurley. "He's a game changer."

[+] EnlargeKelvin Taylor
Joel Auerbach/Getty ImagesKelvin Taylor will start in the backfield for Florida.
Gurley isn't the only potential game changer this weekend. The Gators will start freshman Kelvin Taylor start at running back against the Dawgs. The son of former Florida All-American running back Fred Taylor, Florida's new starter doesn't have Gurley's resume, but he arrived in Gainesville with a lot more hype.

The younger Taylor was the No. 1 running back coming out of high school in the 2013 class after rushing for 12,121 yards and scoring a Florida state-record 191 touchdowns during his varsity career. However, all of Taylor's hype hasn't translated to the field, yet, as he has 172 yards and a touchdown on 28 carries.

Richt isn't very familiar with Taylor, but he recruited his father to Florida State years ago. There was even a time in which he thought he had the elder Taylor and receiver Reidel Anthony locked up until they both took last-minute visits to Florida.

"I thought I had them both," Richt said. "They took one more visit just for fun to Florida -- that's what they told me -- and they never came back.

"I remember he kind of said, ‘Hey, save a spot, I’m coming.’"

Richt can laugh about it now, but you have to think he'd like to see his defense stop this Taylor from schooling him like his father did.

Florida coach Will Muschamp wouldn't compare Taylor to his father, but has been impressed with his "natural running instincts" and said he gets the ball north and south as a "one-cut runner."

He isn't a breakaway guy with his speed, but he's a solid downhill runner with the agility to make guys miss. What he has to do is get closer to becoming more of a complete back in Florida's offense.

"He's a guy that's got some special ability, but the thing that's really struck me as we've moved forward with the season is him doing a better job with protection and some of the things you've got to do at the running back position besides running the ball," Muschamp said.

With the offense regressing with each week, the Gators will need some sort of spark from Taylor to help the passing game. He showed promise with his team-high 74 yards and a 20-yard touchdown on 12 carries in the loss to Missouri two weeks ago.

And having Gurley back should help the Dawgs as well. With Gurley in the lineup during the first four games of the season, the Bulldogs averaged 554 offensive yards a game. Since then, the Dawgs have averaged 369.7 yards per game. Injuries haven't helped, but neither has not having Gurley and his 6.3 yards per carry.

"He’s a guy that usually if you block for zero yards, he gets about two or three," Richt said. "If you block for three or four, he gets about seven or eight. If you block it just right, anything can happen.

"He’s a complete back, and he’s a dynamic player really. Hopefully he’s 100 percent and we can get him some space to see what he can do.”

Both of these teams will need to run the ball to succeed on Saturday, and they're both hoping to have fresher, more efficient engines in their backfield down in Jacksonville.


ATHENS, Ga. -- In some ways, Arthur Lynch believes that Aaron Murray fits the quarterback stereotype perfectly. In others, Georgia's senior tight end says that Murray could not be further from what one might expect from a record-setting, four-year starter at one of the nation's most prominent football programs.

[+] EnlargeAaron Murray
AP Photo/Wade PayneAaron Murray's career at Georgia is one of the best in SEC history.
“He wants to be the leader, kind of the guy that needs to be looked upon for everything. Sometimes I think he applies too much pressure on himself with that,” said Lynch, Murray's longtime friend and roommate. “But in terms of like walking around campus and brushing people off, I kind of wish he had more of that. Sometimes it gets so annoying in public, no matter where it is. It could be the dining hall, it could be in Atlanta, it could be at Shane's Rib Shack, he's going to stop and give pictures where some guys might brush people off.

“So no, he's never given that vibe, which is a testament to him because he could easily be that guy and people would probably like him more for it because it's, 'Ah, that's what he's supposed to act like.' But the fact that he doesn't fit that mold is probably what people get weirded out about. They're probably like, 'There's got to be something behind the curtain.'”

Nope. Murray's generally affable demeanor is no facade -- which might be part of his perception problem nationally and even within his own conference.

He's not a flashy player, throwing up “Get Money” hand signals after a touchdown like Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel at Texas A&M. He hasn't won BCS titles like Alabama's AJ McCarron. Yet when the SEC's coaches released their preseason all-conference list, some college football observers were surprised to see Murray as the first-team quarterback.

Maybe that was a career achievement award from the league's coaches, as Murray's team-first attitude and legendary work ethic have helped him become the most prolific passer in the league's history.

“Everything he's done, he's earned it. It wasn't just off God-given talent or this crazy arm or anything like that. It's that he's worked for it, he's earned it,” said receiver Rhett McGowan, Murray's fellow fifth-year senior.

Murray has already broken ex-Bulldog David Greene's SEC record for career passing yards (Murray now has 12,029) and surpassed former Florida great Tim Tebow's career mark for total offense (Murray's at 12,327 yards) with a completion to Lynch in the Bulldogs' last game against Vanderbilt.

Entering Saturday's game against Florida, Murray is two touchdown passes behind ex-Gator Danny Wuerffel's SEC record of 114 touchdown passes, and he's still on pace to threaten ex-Gator Chris Leak's league record of 895 completions (Murray has 835) and former Kentucky quarterback Jared Lorenzen's mark of 1,514 pass attempts (Murray has 1,355).

Not that he has much time to focus on the record book these days. Coming off two straight losses, Murray's Georgia team (4-3, 3-2 SEC) needs a win on Saturday to have any hope in the SEC East race -- and he has been working overtime with an injury-depleted receiving corps in hopes of giving his offense a chance against a stout Florida defense.

“I guess when I'm old and want to brag, I can,” Murray said of the records. “But right now it's all about the team. It's all about getting this win. I guess I can talk about this later in life when I'm done playing and all, when I look back.”

Murray was on a short list of Heisman contenders just a few weeks ago, when Georgia was coming off wins against top-10 teams South Carolina and LSU and still had hopes of claiming a BCS championship berth. That was Murray's stated goal all along in returning for his senior season, and it appeared to be a reasonable possibility before many of his most valuable skill players fell victim to long-term or season-ending injuries.

The Bulldogs' once-explosive offense struggled without Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall in the backfield and Malcolm Mitchell, Justin Scott-Wesley and Michael Bennett at receiver, and the losses to Missouri and Vanderbilt in those players' absence sunk the Bulldogs' BCS hopes. But Murray said he doesn't regret his decision to put off his NFL dreams for one more season.

“I'm still playing football. I'm still out there with my buddies having fun, competing,” Murray said. “Obviously I came back to try to give ourselves a chance to win a championship, but it didn't happen. So what? Let's move on. Let's continue working hard and having fun, and that's what I'm doing.”

That typifies the attitude Murray has displayed since he arrived at Georgia in 2009, with his relentless behind-the-scenes work propelling him through one of the most statistically impressive careers in SEC history, even if it might not result in the recognition that goes to quarterbacks on championship teams or those with a flashier highlight reel.

A BCS crown will not complete Murray's legacy at Georgia, but he will leave a significant void nonetheless. To gain some insight, consider an observation that Bulldogs coach Mark Richt made last Friday at the end of the Bulldogs' open week, when most coaches and players had already started making the most of a rare off weekend.

“It was maybe close to noontime, maybe just after noontime, and he and Faton [Bauta, one of Georgia's backup quarterbacks] are out there doing footwork and drill work and throwing the ball,” Richt recalled. “I went over the rail and I said, 'Get out of here. Just relax.' They were like, 'There's no days off, Coach. There's no days off.' [I said], 'All right, if that's what you want.'

“But that's how he is. He's wired that way. Every single day he wants to try to find a way to get better, and he's not feeling sorry for himself or anything like that. I think he's still very happy that he's here with us and wants to finish strong.”
ATHENS, Ga. -- The moment Missouri kicker Andrew Baggett's 24-yard overtime field goal attempt dinged off the right upright at Faurot Field on Saturday night, three fan bases exploded.

[+] EnlargeMark Richt
Don McPeak/USA TODAY SportsMark Richt and his Bulldogs look to stay in the SEC East race with a win over rival Florida.
Clearly, one was South Carolina, which had just pulled off the 27-24, come-from-behind win, but at the exact same moment, Florida and Georgia fans, players and coaches celebrated at once, as they climbed right back into the SEC Eastern Division race.

"I felt like we had just won a game," said Georgia wide receiver Rhett McGowan, sporting the same boyish smile he likely had late Saturday night.

While both programs, which face each other in their annual Outdoor Party in Jacksonville, Fla., Saturday, are unranked with identical 4-3 (3-2 SEC) records, they scored major victories without playing a down. Mizzou's loss resurrected the Dawgs and Gators, even though they're both a game back of the Tigers, who own head-to-head tiebreakers over both.

Still, if both teams win out and see a couple more Mizzou losses, the winner of Saturday's game could sneak into Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game.

"It gave us a little hope," Florida defensive back Cody Riggs said. "I went crazy. I was jumping around the house. I actually called [safety] Jaylen [Watkins], I was like ‘We’re back in it! We’re back!’ We’ve still got a chance."

The chances are slim, but they are there. It doesn't help either that both will literally limp into EverBank Field, as injuries have ravaged the two this season.

Florida is dealing with eight season-ending injuries (four starters), including quarterback Jeff Driskel and defensive tackle Dominique Easley, while Georgia has watched nearly every capable skill player go down. Running back Keith Marshall and receivers Malcolm Mitchell and Justin-Scott Wesley are all out for the year with ACL injuries, while receiver Chris Conley (ankle) is doubtful for Saturday.

"I don't think there's any other team besides the [New England] Patriots that's more beat up than us and Florida," Georgia tight end Arthur Lynch said.

Even coach Mark Richt had to chuckle at the sight of his depth chart Tuesday. Standing in front of a throng of media members, Richt released a sarcastic snicker when he looked at the available receivers on this week's depth chart.

"Kenny Towns will be available to play," Richt said.

"Also, [Michael] Erdman -- Erdman is ready.”

Not exactly Mitchell or Conley.

The good news is that receiver Michael Bennett (knee) and running back Todd Gurley (ankle) should be available on Saturday, but safeties Tray Matthews and Josh Harvey-Clemons are still in limbo.

Then there's Florida.

Linebacker Ronald Powell (ankle) is questionable, while linebacker Darrin Kitchens (shoulder) and tight end Colin Thompson (foot) are doubtful. Florida will get defensive tackle Damien Jacobs (head) back, and quarterback Tyler Murphy (shoulder) should be fine.

Outside of injuries, on-field play has hampered those two as well. Florida's offense has stalled in each of its three losses, while Georgia's young, inexperienced defense has had plenty of growing pains.

Because of that, both will face each other on a two-game losing streak for the first time since 1926 and unranked for the second time since 1979.

For the Gators, the past two games have been an offensive nightmare. After averaging 393.4 yards per game and 5.6 yards per play during the first five games, Florida has averaged 195.5 yards per game and 3.1 yards per play while converting just 28.1 percent of its third downs since.

Georgia's defense ranks 58th nationally (390.1 yards per game) and is giving up 5.5 yards per play. It has registered just seven turnovers this season, tied for last in the SEC. To put that into perspective, former Georgia linebacker Jarvis Jones forced three fumbles and recovered two in his two games against Florida.

This game has lost some of its luster nationally, and neither will be playing for a national championship this season, but that doesn't mean it isn't important. A war of attrition will replace the party in Jacksonville, but that won't stop each side from seething at the sight of the other's color combination.

"If you can’t get excited about playing Florida in that venue, you shouldn’t be a Bulldog. Period," Richt said. "We all understand that. I think everybody is going to get their blood pumping for that.

"Both of us are just fighting like mad to stay in the race. With another loss, I don’t know if mathematically or not it knocks us out, but it’d be pretty tough.”

Added Murphy: "It’s kind of like a one-game playoff. If you lose, your season is kind of done or down in the dumps. Both teams are going to come out hungry and ready to go."

Lynch called the Florida-Georgia rivalry the midseason "gauntlet of college football." This has major East implications and it's a bitter rivalry. They both celebrated Saturday's victory, but when they see each other, true disdain will emerge, which should be motivation enough.

"It's not a one-way street, they legitimately hate us too," Lynch said. "It's nothing like I've ever seen before.

"I'll raise my kids to hate Florida just as anyone else. Even if they go play football at Brown, they'll still root for Georgia over Florida. That's just how it is."

Injuries now 'The Question' for Richt

October, 25, 2013
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ATHENS, Ga. -- For most of his time at Georgia, this was the time of year where Mark Richt started having to answer “the question.” Fortunately for Richt, a two-game winning streak against rival Florida has made for a refreshing change in that department – but that nuisance has only been replaced by a different set of bothersome questions.

“It's nice not to have to hear that question,” Richt told reporters after Thursday's practice. “Year after year, 'When are you going to beat Florida?' that gets pretty old. So that isn't the big topic of conversation this year. Everybody wants to talk about, what did we talk about injuries for the first 80 percent of this meeting so far? That's what everybody's talking about, but it's been the dominating story.”

Richt is one of the most consistent winners among active FBS coaches, but his subpar record against Florida was one of the black marks on an otherwise sterling resume in his first decade as the Bulldogs' coach. Georgia beat the Gators just twice in its first 10 tries under Richt before winning in both 2011 and 2012 -- giving the Bulldogs their first back-to-back wins against the Gators since 1988-89.

[+] EnlargeMark Richt
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsMark Richt doesn't want injuries to become the story of the year at Georgia.
But he's right. The topic du jour leading into next week's Georgia-Florida game in Jacksonville is not so much the Bulldogs' chance to run its winning streak to three games as it is the debilitating injuries that have struck both programs, forcing both out of the top 25 following losses over the weekend.

The Gators announced this week that linebacker Jeremi Powell is out for the rest of the season, making him the eighth Florida player to suffer a season-ending injury -- a list that also includes starters Jeff Driskel, Dominique Easley, Chaz Green and Matt Jones.

Georgia has played the last two games -- both losses -- without most of its most dangerous offensive weapons, which is why Richt spent the first several minutes of Thursday's post-practice press gathering discussing injuries, how they have impacted his team and whether some of the injured players might return for the Florida game.

UGA director of sports medicine Ron Courson delivered the team's lengthy injury report to the sports medicine office while Richt was speaking to reporters . The list included 24 players and 12 who have started at least once this season.

Richt addressed some of those concerns -- most notably All-SEC tailback Todd Gurley's return to practice this week following a three-game absence with an ankle injury -- after Thursday's final practice of the open week:

On Gurley: “He practiced. He made it till the end. He ran sprints with everybody at the end. He did scout work, which is really all we asked him to do. But he did fundamental work -- the run polish and that kind of thing. He did good. I'm encouraged.”

On receiver Michael Bennett (knee): “He wasn't trying to break a land-speed record or anything, but he was sprinting and striding out pretty good and he looked fine. The drill I saw him do was kind of a sprint-jog-sprint-jog kind of thing down the field and he looked good. I would think he'll be practicing Monday.”

On center David Andrews (foot): “I think we expect him to play, but he did not go today. Dallas [Lee] was playing center with the first group. … We're hoping it's such a temporary thing you don't think much about it, but we had Kolton [Houston] playing the left guard spot where Dallas was. Kolton's a good player, so I think we'd be OK, but we're better with [Andrews] at center.”

On safety Josh Harvey-Clemons (foot) and receiver Chris Conley (ankle), who both left last Saturday's Vanderbilt loss with injuries: “Neither one of them practiced. I would guess Josh Harvey is closer than Chris and I don't know if Josh will practice Monday or not.”

On freshman linebacker Reggie Carter (knee): “Reggie was not out there. Reggie hurt his knee Tuesday in practice. Don't know how severe yet.”

Bennett and safety Tray Matthews (hamstring) worked on the side with trainers, away from the team, during the portion of practice that was open to the media.

Gurley and fellow tailbacks J.J. Green (right shoulder contusion, left shoulder sprain) and Brendan Douglas (right knee sprain, left wrist sprain) worked in team drills while wearing green non-contact jerseys. Receivers Rhett McGowan (ankle), Michael Erdman (shoulder) and Tramel Terry (shoulder) also practiced in green, joining the lengthy list of players dealing with some physical ailment.

“We don't want to make it the story of the year,” Richt said. “We want to win ballgames. We want to prepare to win with who we have available. We want guys to get well as fast as they can get well. We want some guys that know they're going to miss the season, we want them to be ready as fast as they can so they can have a great year next year. But obviously that's been the thing that most people have talked about because it's been a little unusual in that regard.”
ATHENS, Ga. -- Even when his unit lost player after player to injury, Mike Bobo insisted Georgia would keep running its offense as it always had.

There was one problem: over time, that became an impossible proposition.

[+] EnlargeTodd Gurley
AP Photo/Butch DillGeorgia tailback Todd Gurley is expected to return from injury against Florida on Nov. 2.
Here were the Georgia offensive coordinator's top personnel options when the season started:

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).

That's everybody.

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.

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SEC SCOREBOARD

Wednesday, 12/24
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