The Georgia Bulldogs bookended arguably the most depressing eight-day stretch in the state’s long sports history – the sad interior filled with another Braves postseason eviction and a Monday Night Football embarrassment by the Falcons.
The Bulldog injury report from the great Tennessee escape last week was gruesome. The reality of those losses hit home on a postcard perfect Saturday afternoon in Sanford Stadium. Georgia doesn’t have the defense and no longer has the offensive weapons to be the championship contender they seemed destined for in September.
That was painfully obvious in a 41-26 defeat to No. 25 Missouri on Saturday – though good luck finding a Georgia player or coach willing to admit that.
“The only thing that changes the game-plan is the defense that we play,” said Bulldog senior receiver Chris Conley. “The young guys did step up today, we just didn’t get it done and didn’t finish. We make no excuses with injuries. We still have to execute at a high level.”
That’s the problem, because the Bulldogs simply can’t execute at the same high level offensively that they could before Todd Gurley, Keith Marshall, Malcolm Mitchell, Justin Scott-Wesley and Michael Bennett got knocked out with injuries. As capably as the backups handled the responsibility that was heaped upon them, they weren’t ahead of those other guys on the depth chart for a reason.
It showed up at the most critical times Saturday. On three consecutive red-zone opportunities, the Bulldogs came away with two field goals and crushing fumble by Brendan Douglas at the 5 just before halftime.
Then at the end, Aaron Murray threw two interceptions when he was obviously forcing the ball into what seemed like limited options. Instead of engineering another comeback from eight points down in the final 4:25, the Bulldogs were helplessly watching Missouri salt the game away and take over the divisional front-runner status in the Southeastern Conference.
“We had who we had coming into the game,” said offensive coordinator Mike Bobo of the personnel dropoff. “We knew it was going to be a big deal in the red zone trying to make some plays and we didn’t execute and they did.”
Of course, the defense remains a huge issue. Mark Richt praised them for a “spark” and “signs of life” in making a few second-half stops that allowed the Bulldogs a chance to come back from an 18-point halftime deficit to have a chance at surviving another shootout, but the seventh week of the season is not a time to be discussing flashes of competence and vital signs. Giving up nearly 34 points per game is unhealthy for any team, much less one with an all-star offensive roster on injured reserve.
It’s hard to fathom the emotional decent the Bulldogs have made in the last 15 days. The high of Sept. 28 when players and coaches were making curtain calls between the hedges after a gutsy 44-41 victory over LSU seems eons ago after the stunned trauma of the costly overtime victory at Tennessee and the harsh reality of a loss to Mizzou that nobody had on its threat radar two weeks ago.
“It takes a lot of energy to play any game and even more to play the kinds of games we’ve been playing,” Richt said. “And a lot of emotional energy, too. But I thought we rebounded well a whole week later and thought our guys were excited to play the game. We just got beat by a good team.”
That’s just it. Missouri is a good team – undefeated and now firmly in a four-team mix to win the SEC East. But before last Saturday, Georgia had a chance to be a great team (provided that defensive spark ever caught flame).
Now, who knows? It’s not like all is lost for the Bulldogs (though you can probably cancel those hotel rooms in Pasadena, Calif., in January). There is not another team on the schedule in the second half of the season with the offensive capability of any of the four ranked teams the Bulldogs have already faced.
But the margin for error is gone while the likelihood of error increased. Missouri survived Saturday despite its star quarterback getting injured with the Tigers clinging to a two-point lead. It faces Florida and South Carolina in the next two weeks. If the Tigers lose both and the Bulldogs win out against a conference schedule that includes Vanderbilt, Kentucky, Florida and Auburn, Georgia will be headed back to Atlanta as SEC East champs.
That’s not a remotely far-fetched scenario. But the degree of confidence isn’t what it was only nine days ago.
“It hurts, but we’ve got to rebound,” Murray said. “It’s a wild ride and hopefully it steadies out. We’ve got to hope (the Tigers) lose two games and we’ve got to win ourselves. We’ll see. It’s a long season for everyone.”
Not nearly as long as the last eight days have been on the psyche of sports fans around here. In mid-September the Braves had the best record in the National League, the Falcons were just one game out of the division with a healthy Julio Jones and the Georgia Bulldogs were a high-flying BCS title contender. Heck, even Georgia Tech was trending upward in the Atlantic Coast Conference and something called the Dream was in the WNBA finals.
Now, the only sure thing in Georgia may be a run on refills of heart meds and antidepressants. Because the Bulldogs’ road just got a lot tougher and the rewards a little smaller.