ATHENS, Ga. — Saturday would have been legendary Georgia broadcaster Larry Munson’s 91st birthday. Had he lived long enough to call Georgia’s 44-41 victory over LSU though, it might have killed him.
“Bonkers!” would have been Munson’s most likely final assessment as the sold-out Sanford Stadium erupted time and again in fits of agony and euphoria.
Bonkers that two quarterbacks who once dueled for the same position in a 2010 spring game would end up throwing haymakers against each other in a top-10 showdown between the hedges.
Bonkers that Zach Mettenberger came home to pass for 372 yards – 168 of them, including three touchdowns, on third downs.
Bonkers that Aaron Murray did not flinch when faced with yet another do-or-die drive in the closing minutes of another big game.
Bonkers that after nearly 1,000 combined yards that it would come down to one defensive stop in the end to seal it for the Bulldogs.
“I talk about the moment of truth a lot and you’ve got to make a play when you need it most,” said an emotionally drained Georgia head coach Mark Richt. “Sometimes all you need is just need one stop to win the game. We got the stop against South Carolina and we got the stop in this game when it looked like no one was going to stop anybody.”
With the exception of one muffed punt that kept Georgia’s offense on the field in the fourth quarter, neither team’s offense came away without points on 11 consecutive drives going back to the 11:31 mark of the second quarter. It was like watching Roger Federer against Rafael Nadal and the first one to break serve wins.
“You couldn’t ask for either one of those guys to play any better than they played,” Richt said of Murray and Mettenberger. “It was amazing how good they did.”
“It was a heavyweight fight between two teams, but for two players it was the same thing and they were throwing blows,” said Bulldog tight end Arthur Lynch, Mettenberger’s former roommate and one of Murray’s favorite targets.
At its moment of truth, Georgia’s offense knew – just knew – it would score again after LSU took its first lead since the first quarter. Ask every offensive player what it was like in the huddle when the Bulldogs got the ball back trailing 41-37 with 4:14 remaining and the universal response was “calm and confident.”
Six plays and 75 yards later Justin Scott-Wesley was hauling in Murray’s perfect sideline strike for a 25-yard go-ahead touchdown.
“No doubt at all,” said Scott-Wesley.
Doubt, however, flowed through Sanford Stadium like a flash flood when Mettenberger and his LSU offense trudged back onto the field with 1:42 remaining. The overwhelming sense was that Georgia had scored too soon.
The vibe in Georgia’s defensive huddle was a little different.
“It was kind of panic and in some way just get a stop,” said true freshman free safety Tray Matthews in a young player’s flash of candor.
Panic was a valid response. Mettenberger – the former star from nearby Oconee County High who was kicked off Georgia’s team for a sexual assault arrest – had been carving the Bulldogs’ defense up all day – especially with his back against the wall. To that point in the game, Mettenberger had completed 7 of 10 passes on third down for 168 yards and three touchdowns. The real back-breaker had come a series before when the Tigers faced third-and-22 at their own 13 and he calmly hit Odell Beckham for 25 yards in one of the gaping holes of Georgia’s ill-advised prevent defense.
So it’s safe to say the only people who vaguely wanted to see Georgia’s defense out there again was Georgia’s young defenders themselves. It was the only way to salvage a little dignity.
“We knew (our offense) was going to score and we knew it was going to be on us,” Matthews said.
“I definitely wanted to get back out on the field,” said sophomore linebacker Jordan Jenkins, who dropped a critical interception chanceearlier in the game. “I wanted to prove that we could stop them ... especially after that third-and-22, we had to prove something after that.”
Murray and his mates were mentally prepared for overtime – assuming the Tigers could at least move into field goal range. But after one 18-yard completion, Mettenberger’s open receivers dried up and the pressure and coverage forced four straight incompletions.
“I feel like in tough times our defense can definitely man up and come through,” said Jenkins. “That last drive today and that fourth-down stop against South Carolina just sums up what kind of defense we’ll be in the long run.”
What Georgia has been in the short run is remarkable. The Bulldogs have arguably been involved in the top three most compelling and meaningful games in the entire nation and traded one non-conference defeat to Clemson for a pair of inspired conference victories.
But Saturday’s shootout with LSU will stand out. It was so bonkers that Murray planned to retreat to his house with his parents Saturday night and watch the broadcast all over again to see what really happened – perhaps imagining what Larry Munson might have said as it all went bonkers.
“I think I lost about five years of my life on that game,” Murray said. “It was stressful but it was fun. It was a game we’ll talk about 20, 30 years down the road when we’re old and you guys are really, really old.”