Georgia's vaunted running attack never materializes against North Texas

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Georgia running back Todd Gurley runs with the ball Saturday against the North Texas defense. Gurley did not reach the 100-yard mark, finishing the game with 91 rushing yards.   AJ Reynolds
AJ Reynolds
Georgia running back Todd Gurley runs with the ball Saturday against the North Texas defense. Gurley did not reach the 100-yard mark, finishing the game with 91 rushing yards.

ATHENS, Ga. — There was a lot of chatter regarding Georgia’s running game heading into Saturday’s tilt with North Texas.

Todd Gurley had garnered some Heisman Trophy hype early this season. Quayvon Hicks had emerged as a hidden threat. Combined with Keith Marshall, the trio were pegged the best in the Southeastern Conference by Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd after facing them on Aug. 31.

It all foreshadowed a dominant ground performance against North Texas, a team that entered Saturday’s game ranked 94th in total defense and allowed 435 yards per game (168 rush).

But that just wasn’t the case.

Gurley was held to 39 yards in the first half – his lowest output in the opening two quarters since last year’s 35-7 loss to South Carolina.

And though Gurley added another 52 in the second half to finish the game with 91, he averaged 4.3 yards per carry, well under the 6.8 season average he brought in to Saturday’s game.

“We’re a very balanced offense and I think we were getting frustrated with the fact that we weren’t moving the ball on the ground as well as we wanted to,” tight end Arthur Lynch said.

Quarterback Aaron Murray (seven rushes for 37 yards) even finished with more ground production than Marshall (eight for 16) and Hicks (one for one), though most of his runs were on intended pass plays that collapsed.

North Texas players said this week that their game plan leaned heavily on forcing Georgia’s backs, specifically Gurley, to run between the tackles. Mean Green linebacker Zach Orr said the team noticed on film Gurley’s emerging ability of breaking big runs outside on first option reads, such as pitch plays or screens.

“He’s big and can pound you, and then if he gets past you, you’re not going to catch him,” Orr said earlier in the week. “We want to keep him from getting to the outside because we know he has breakaway speed.”

Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said that North Texas executed its game plan with poise.

“They wanted to stop the run and they did a nice job of that,” Bobo said. “Fortunately we made enough plays to win the ball game.”

But were there moments that Georgia had to abandon the run for the pass when it didn’t want to?

“No question,” Bobo said. “There were a lot of times.”

Georgia, for the most part, did have success in its aerial attack.

Murray, in one of the few college games he’s played in the rain, finished 22-of-30 for 408 yards and three touchdowns while distributing the ball to nine different receivers. He said that his pass catchers’ ability to persevere amid the precipitation made his job easier.

A player that Murray praised heavily was Lynch, who finished the game with a career-high 85 yards and a touchdown on four catches.

“He played a great game and almost had two touchdowns,” Murray said. “He made some great catches out there.”

One of those catches was another David Greene-esque fake pass by Murray, the exact one that went for 66 yards and a Marlon Brown touchdown last year against Ole Miss.

Though it didn’t go for a score this time around, it did set Murray up for a one-yard touchdown run on the ensuing play. Georgia then took a 28-21 lead in the third that it wouldn’t relinquish.

Lynch said that though he expected a stronger offensive output, he was still pleased, and ignored the crowd’s boos in the middle portion of the game. He added that he expects the Bulldogs to be fully prepared for next weekend’s showdown with LSU.

“People are very nit-picky and want a perfect game, but no one plays a perfect game,” Lynch said. “You take away a couple key plays, which I think we’ll be able to correct, and there’s not much to worry about.”

GRADING THE GAME

OFFENSE: B+

Aaron Murray passed for his 100th career touchdown, a 98-yard bomb to freshman Reggie Davis that is now the longest touchdown pass in Georgia history. He finished the day with 408 yards, three touchdown passes and completed 73 percent of his throws, but running backs Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall were held to a combined 107 yards. That’s down from their previous two games of 197 against Clemson and 190 against South Carolina. The North Texas defense caused two turnovers – a Gurley fumble and an Murray interception.

DEFENSE: A-

Though the scoreboard didn’t show it, the defense showed vast improvement over its first two outings. The Bulldogs gave up 245 total yards, including just seven rushing yards. Leonard Floyd made his presence felt with two sacks and the team finished with 10 tackles for loss. The Mean Green offense did accumulate 238 yards passing on a struggling Georgia secondary, though Tray Matthews recorded the secondary’s first interception on the season and the first pick of his college career.

SPECIAL TEAMS: D

A dreary outing for special teams. It gave up two scores – one on a 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown and the other a blocked punt for a touchdown. Special teams play has been shaky all season with a high mishandled snap on a field goal at Clemson and another high mishandled snap on a punt against South Carolina. Had it not been for the mistakes on special teams – and they were huge mistakes – North Texas would’ve mustered just seven points.

COACHING: B+

The running game couldn’t really get going until the fourth quarter, though Gurley finished with 91 yards and a touchdown. The passing game carried the offense throughout the victory, which was highlighted by the Murray-to-Davis touchdown. The lack of awareness and consistency on special teams was made a bigger talking point after the mistakes against North Texas.

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