ATHENS, Ga. — Even with Georgia Southern on the verge of a halftime lead, Aaron Murray wasn’t worried.
He knew No. 5 Georgia was too good to let this one slip away.
Murray threw four touchdown passes, Todd Gurley became only the second true freshman in Georgia history to rush for 1,000 yards, and the Bulldogs bounced back from a sluggish start to blow out lower-division Georgia Southern 45-14 on Saturday.
“We had some good matchups. We had some coverages we didn’t exploit,” Murray said. “We were finally able to do that and make some big plays.”
Georgia (10-1) reached 10 wins for the eighth time in Mark Richt’s dozen seasons as coach. Georgia Southern (8-3) wasted a chance to be ahead at the half <0x2014> a potential first-and-goal ruined by a penalty – and that was all the edge Murray needed.
He completed a 24-yard touchdown pass to Malcolm Mitchell with just 4 seconds left in the half, sending Georgia to the locker room with a 17-7 lead. In the third quarter, Murray hooked up with Chris Conley on a pair of scoring passes, sandwiched around a 43-yarder to Tavarres King.
“We were shooting ourselves in the foot,” Murray said. “It wasn’t like we weren’t driving the ball, but we were stopping ourselves with penalties and turnovers, things like that. Once we cleaned that up in the second half, we moved up and down the field.”
Georgia got a chance to work against the run-oriented option, the same scheme they’ll see next week in the regular-season finale against Georgia Tech. Then it’s on to the Southeastern Conference Championship Game for a likely meeting with No. 4 Alabama, and a possible shot at sneaking into the national championship race if the Bulldogs can win out.
“We obviously have goals and aspirations. We’ve had them since January,” Murray said. “Let’s just see what happens. We need some help and we need to win, but we can’t worry about who else is playing and who else needs to lose. We’ve got to do our thing and make sure we win our games.”
Gurley scored Georgia’s first touchdown on a 1-yard plunge. In the second quarter, he got to 1,000 yards on a 5-yard gain, joining Herschel Walker in 1980 as the school’s only first-year players to reach that mark. Knowshon Moreno was a redshirt freshman when he rushed for more than 1,000 in 2007.
“I know I have it, but it doesn’t feel like it,” Gurley said. “There’s still a lot of football to be played. I just feel like these are accomplishments you look back at when you leave, 10 or 15 years from now. It’s good, but I still have lot of work to do.”
Georgia Southern hung around for the first two quarters, causing some nervous groans in the predominantly red-clad crowd. But the Eagles, a Southern Conference powerhouse, were totally overwhelmed in the second half.
Murray went to Conley for a 13-yard touchdown that stretched the lead to 24-7. After going deep to King, Murray swung a short pass to Conley, who took it 33 yards for the score that sent many of the fans heading for the exits.
Before sitting out most of the fourth quarter, Murray put up his third four-TD game of the season and seventh of his career. He finished 18 of 28 for 330 yards.
His counterpart, Jerick McKinnon, rushed for 109 yards and scored both Georgia Southern touchdowns.
The Eagles dropped to 0-20 against Football Bowl Subdivision schools, with five of those losses to Georgia. At least they picked up a nice paycheck ($475,000) for making a quick bus ride from Statesboro.
Georgia Southern, co-champions of the Southern Conference, got some good news on the out-of-town scoreboard when The Citadel defeated Furman to give the Eagles the league’s automatic berth into the FCS playoffs.
“We came here to win,” coach Jeff Monken said. “But games like this show our guys that we can run the ball against a great defense and give them some confidence going into the playoffs.”
As expected, Georgia marched right down the field on its first possession. It got tougher from there.
The next time the Bulldogs had the ball, they were in position to extend the lead on a 51-yard field goal. But Marshall Morgan’s kick came up well short of the goalposts – so much so that Darreion Robinson, younger brother of Atlanta Falcons cornerback Dunta Robinson, was able to catch the ball in the back of the end zone. He suddenly sprinted out and might’ve scored if not for a saving tackle by Morgan along the sideline at the Georgia 41.
McKinnon fumbled away that chance, losing the ball when he tried to pull back from throwing, but the Bulldogs fumbled it right back when Rhett McGowan took a big hit over the middle. The Eagles strung together a tedious drive for the tying TD, running it 10 straight times before McKinnon’s 1-yard sneak.
Georgia answered with Morgan’s 37-yard field goal, but Georgia Southern was in position for a shocking halftime lead.
On fourth-and-1 at the Georgia 7, the Eagles appeared to pick up the first down on Dominique Swopes’ 2-yard run. But guard Trevor McBurnett was called for a chop block, going at the legs of massive nose tackle John Jenkins while he was being held up by another Georgia Southern blocker. After 15 yards were stepped off, the Eagles attempted a tying field goal. Alex Hanks was wide right with a 39-yard attempt.
“It was a big penalty,” McKinnon said. “But those things happen when you run this type of offense.”
Instead of being ahead or at least tied, the Eagles wound up 10 behind when Murray found Mitchell in the left corner of the end zone in the closing seconds.
That essentially snuffed out any hope Georgia Southern had of pulling off the upset.