Sports Columns

December 5, 2013

Loran Smith: Bulldogs were rewarded for persistence

ATLANTA — Comebacks are sweet, and if anybody deserved one it was this University of Georgia football team, which has suffered tremendously from injuries this season and particularly in this past Saturday’s game at Georgia Tech.

Because four-year starter Aaron Murray suffered a season-ending knee injury against Kentucky the week prior, the Bulldogs lined up in the biggest rivalry game on the schedule with backup quarterback Hutson Mason under center. Until he proved otherwise, the redshirt junior was an unknown factor — and one who was likely to stumble, owing to the pressure of a big challenge without seasoning.

In addition, Georgia’s defense featured players whose experience best qualified them for the scout team. It’s possible they were greener than the quarterback.

When it was over, Mason was the least hyped of all in the celebratory scene in Georgia’s locker room. He was as calm and collected as he might be before the spring game.

Before the game, Kris Durham — the former Bulldogs wide receiver from Calhoun who has made himself prominent with the Detroit Lions — was in town for the game and visiting with Mike Bobo, who was asked to describe Mason.  With that, Durham moved his hand from his left to his right horizontally, indicating that Mason’s emotions are always the same. Never too high, never too low.

Back to Mason in the foot-stomping din of the locker room after Georgia’s 41-34 double-overtime victory over the Yellow Jackets. He had the demeanor of Gary Cooper in “High Noon” — the distant look of someone who had just had his athletic heart cut out of his body rather than one who had just led his teammates to the most improbable comeback I can remember by the Bulldogs.

To fall behind 20-0 and survive to ring the chapel bell is one thing, but to do it with a lineup that was as physically taxed and patched up as this one makes it rank with the all-time comebacks, especially in the series with Georgia Tech.

Remember, Georgia had an inexperienced quarterback and members of a secondary that, at the start of the week, didn’t expect to play!

This listing of those in need of Red Cross assistance — not including four starters out with injured anterior cruciate ligaments — is a reminder of how gallant this Georgia team played in its efforts to retain the Governor’s Cup:

• Tray Matthews, Shaq Wiggins and Jay Rome did not play.

• Garrison Smith, the best defensive lineman, was out for the fourth quarter and overtime. He and special teams member Corey Campbell, both captains, were in street clothes during the extra periods of play.

• Quincy Mauger, a defensive back, left in the fourth quarter and missed overtime with a leg injury.

• Corey Moore played, but not at full strength.

• Sheldon Dawson, green and inexperienced, also played hurt.

• Running back Todd Gurley. Look at the stat sheet — 20 carries for 122 yards and three rushing touchdowns, plus four catches for 36 yards and one touchdown — and you might think he is in peak condition. Far from it. He has been banged up since the Florida game.

The old line that came out of pro football, “You gotta play hurt,” was never more fitting for a player than it was for Gurley against Tech. He proved again that he has something special in his makeup. When his adrenaline is rushing pell mell, as it was in the second half on Grant Field, he is more than a handful for the best defenses.

This team has had some down moments, has given up big plays that were often fatal, but it never quit, which is about where some of the Bulldogs’ fans were in the second quarter.

How many Doubting Thomases are willing to step forward?

I admit that I was deeply concerned, but I began to see a ray of hope when Mason settled in and moved the Dawgs to that first touchdown, with Gurley’s flying leap, the ball extended over the pylon, a work of art.

What should not be overlooked is that in the second quarter the defense stiffened at the goal line on a long Tech drive, giving up a field goal rather than a touchdown. In the next defensive series, Tech got one first down but the Bulldogs then forced a three-and-out situation that allowed for the drive for Georgia’s first score.

Like they say, it was a team effort.

You always think how it would tighten things up if you get the second-half kickoff and do some good. A touchdown was called back on a very questionable call — how is it that there is but one chop-blocking call in the game, and Georgia gets it? — but the Bulldogs gained a field goal out of their efforts to make it 20-10.

Hope began to edge forward. Georgia’s defense bent on the next series, but Tech missed a field goal attempt.

Then it was Mason to Michael Bennett, the old reliable, for a touchdown, and with Marshall Morgan’s kick we see things really tighten up, Georgia down 20-17 but fighting toe to toe and making things happen. Mason settled into the pocket and began hitting open receivers. The defense gave up only seven points in the second half.

Two critical situations to underscore in the final quarter:

• In Georgia’s drive to score its last touchdown in regulation, which closed the margin to 27-24 in Tech’s favor, the Bulldogs faced a fourth-and-6 situation when coach Mark Richt chose to go for it. Mason, who had missed a pass to Bennett on third down, was on the mark for a first down, connecting with Bennett for 11 yards to midfield.  From that point, Mason moved his team to a touchdown.

• After Josh Harvey-Clemons’ interception with 5:43 remaining, the Bulldogs were thinking touchdown but could only get a tying field goal at 27-27, which gave Tech an opportunity to win the game with a field goal.

The Jackets moved the ball past midfield and faced third-and-7 at the Georgia 40. Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham saw Tech’s alignment and anticipated a pass to DeAndre Smelter, who had scored the Jackets’ last touchdown.

Grantham quickly called time out and switched defensive backs, putting the experienced Damian Swann on Smelter, swapping out with Dawson. Swann’s sticky coverage led to an incomplete pass, forcing Tech to punt, which led to overtime.

You know the rest of the story.

Loran Smith is a contributing columnist for The Daily Citizen. You can write to him at loransmith@sports.uga.edu.

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