ATHENS, Ga. — Scheduling note: Chronicle staff was dispatched to Sanford Stadium to report on what had all the makings to be former Aquinas star Brendan Douglas’ breakout opportunity against North Texas.
Saturday, it seems, wasn’t very good for presumptive game plans.
While Douglas looked good covering one kickoff that went through the end zone and carrying a massive pile of players 20 yards laterally on one of his four late fourth-quarter rushes for 6 yards, there wasn’t enough there to carry a whole column.
The Georgia Bulldogs eventually beat the 33-point underdog Mean Green 45-21 on Saturday, but the mood and atmosphere between the hedges was at times as dreary as the weather.
It’s not all that surprising, of course. Georgia was bound to come out a little flat after a bye week and facing its only opponent before October not ranked in the top 10. The emotion of the Clemson-South Carolina combo had worn off and Louisiana State University is looming.
But that didn’t make any of the alleged 92,685 Georgia fans (by press counts there were precisely 61 green-clad North Texas fans tucked into one corner) any less irritable. Boos rained harder than precipitation when the Mean Green blocked a punt for a touchdown after an opening third-quarter three-and-out to make it 21-21.
That’s what a home team likes to hear on an afternoon when the offense is almost tripling the yardage figures of the opponent and the defense only gives up one scoring drive. (We’ll get to the special teams later.)
“That happens sometimes,” said receiver Chris Conley of the hometown boo-birds. “We hope that the fans stay behind us and that they won’t do that, but we’re going to keep playing ball no matter what. On the sideline, if your fans are booing it doesn’t feel good. But you can’t be limited by that.”
Everyone can concede that Saturday wasn’t the prettiest victory in Georgia history. But it wasn’t nearly as bad as a 21-21 game in the third quarter indicated.
On a day when Aaron Murray passed names like Peyton Manning, Danny Wuerffel and David Greene in various parts of the conference and team record books with a 408-yard passing effort, his only incompletion in the first half was an interception in the end zone.
North Texas returned a kickoff 98 yards for one touchdown and a high punt snap led to a blocked punt for another. So what should have been a ho-hum yawning lead by that point is a misleading tie.
“That’s 21 points,” said head coach Mark Richt, showing his grasp on the awkward scoreboard math that didn’t include a missed 52-yard field goal try before halftime. “And it made the game very, very tight for awhile. ... We got ourselves into a fight and it could have gotten really ugly, but it didn’t.”
That it didn’t is the only thing that matters, ultimately. Georgia is 2-1 and showed enough positive signs offensively and defensively to be prepared for a very tough LSU team coming to town next Saturday. The energy should be a little different.
Those special teams, however, are an issue. (It’s not like LSU is very good at exploiting that kind of stuff, right?)
Every week has brought another special teams snafu. A botched snap on a field goal shorter than an extra point cost the Bulldogs dearly at Clemson. A dropped punt snap led to a short South Carolina touchdown the next week, changing the dynamic of what might have been a more comfortable victory.
Now Georgia doubles down with a pair of mistakes that prove the Bulldogs have some serious special needs. Richt, who has never operated with a designated special teams coach, recognizes the most glaring flaw in Georgia’s armor. He already made a mid-game change at long-snapper, subbing Trent Frix for Nathan Theus, and started mixing guys like Douglas in on kickoff coverage.
“The bad ones have been really bad,” Richt said of the special teams miscues. “The center can’t afford to spray one snap per game.”
Can it all be shored up in time for LSU?
“Nothing wrong with a sense of urgency for a whole week,” Richt said.
Despite the dreariness and the boos and the presumptive blowout game plan that went awry, there was more positive than negative to come out of Saturday’s game. Nobody got seriously hurt (tight end Jay Rome did leave wearing and ankle boot). The defense allowed only 7 yards rushing and Tray Matthews got the first interception of the season that halted a key North Texas drive to potentially tie it at 28 late in the third quarter – which would have made the irritated fan base apoplectic.
And the offense was fine (if that’s what you call 641 total yards) aside from a few hiccups. Murray even provided a treat, hitting speedster Reggie Davis for a 98-yard scoring strike that is the longest in Bulldogs history. Davis’ first career catch was Murray’s 100th career touchdown pass.
So not everything in the planning went wrong.
“Everyone’s going to Monday-morning quarterback,” Murray said. “But at the end of the day it’s a win. We’re not going to apologize for winning the game. I thought our team stumbled here and there and I’m really proud of how we fought through it and the way we finished.”
Sometimes, Plan B is good enough.