Calm Under Fire
By BJ Bennett
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SouthernPigskin.com's B.J. Bennett looks at Aaron Murray's progression as a starting quarterback.
It's been a tumultuous first season for Aaron Murray. Before ever taking a snap under center, Murray was given the reigns to one of college football proudest's programs. Fellow quarterback, upperclassman Logan Gray was moved to receiver in the pre-season, leaving Murray and true freshman Hutson Mason as the only scholarship signal callers. Facing championship expectations, Mark Richt and the coaching staff gave the redshirt freshman the ball.
Before game one news broke that All-American wide receiver A.J. Green sold a game-used jersey, an NCAA violation that would ultimately cost him the first four games of the season. The benching took away Murray's go-to target, a perimeter option capable of beating any defender in the league one-on-one and catching anything thrown near his 6'4'' frame. Murray's receiver rotation went from being led by Green to, fit with underclassmen and unproven commodoties, an adjective of the same color.
Even without his superstar playmaker, Murray had a golden debut. He threw for three touchdowns and rushed for another against Louisiana-Lafeyette, providing some much-needed momentum heading into a brutal three-game conference stretch.
"Aaron Murray did well. He's definitely got some things to learn from. We've already pointed some out and we'll probably have more when we see the tape. That's part of the learning and growing process," Richt explained after the win.
Once he settled into a rhthym, the Tampa-native felt he performed well in his college debut.
"It's been a long time since I played and it was great to get out there. I really felt great," Murray stated. "I was a little nervous earlier this week, but once I got out there and warmed up it really felt great."
The South Carolina game presented two unique challenges: Murray's first road start and his introduction to SEC football. The atmosphere considered, the gameplan entering the divisional showdown was to take pressure off of the redshirt freshman signal caller, avoid mistakes and let the ground game, defense and special teams win the football game. Murray, for the most part, held up his end of the bargain. He completed 14-of-21 passes for nearly 200 yards and did not turn the football over. The Bulldogs were not able to close out the game, however, losing 17-6 in Columbia and starting a four-game dip that would nearly cost Richt his job and would test the character of the entire Georgia football program.
Game three pitted Murray against Heisman Trophy candidate Ryan Mallett of Arkansas. The SEC's leading passer came to Athens and did not disappoint. Mallett threw for 380 yards and three touchdowns, including the game-winner to Greg Childs with 15 seconds left. Murray answered with over 250 yards and two touchdowns, but saw his team lose 31-24 on a late blown coverage defensively.
A road trip to Starkville proved to be more challenging than most thought. Though Georgia won the box score and Murray played efficient football on the road, throwing for 274 yards and one touchdown, the Bulldogs met their match, not just in namesake, losing 24-12 to Mississippi State. Penalties proved to be one of the big problems against MSU as UGA was whistled nine times.
At 0-3 in SEC play, Richt and the team were feeling heat from both the national media and fans in the Peach State.
“It’s the most adversity that I’ve had since I’ve been here. The bottom line is we are 0-3 in the league, and we’ve never been there. We’ve had issues off the field that have been a distraction, and it’s sad for our fans our team, our program, our university and our fans," Richt added.
Penciled in as the starter for a team expected to compete in the SEC East, this was hardly the start Murray expected. A 29-27 loss at Colorado, a game where the Bulldogs were seemingly driving in for a game-winning field goal attempt before a key fumble, brought tensions to an all-time high. Despite his solid play, Georgia's young quarterback was caught right in the middle.
"I don't know where the guy came from. I handed the ball off, and it just came out. That's pretty much how it happened. You can't blame Caleb King for that. It just happens sometimes," Murray said of the fumble. "You have to make sure you pick that guy up and he comes out and has a great week at practice."
While another loss pushed he and his teammates to the brink, Murray found a silver lining in silver britches in the likes of Green. He scored two touchdowns, including a 3-yard pass that stands as one of the plays of the year in college football.
"That was unbelievable. No other receiver in the nation can make that catch. That was special right there. To go up and catch it with one arm, and bring it down with only one arm it's pretty unbelievable," Murray added.
Heading back to Athens at 1-4, Richt's hot seat was cooking at an all-time high. Fans wanted changes on the staff, more intensity from the players and were littering internet message boards with talk of staying home for the remainder of Georgia's home games. Murray, despite his youth and high-profile position, maintained his composure and poise.
In a must-win game against archrival Tennessee, the young signal caller had a standout performance. He scored four total touchdowns in a 41-14 thrashing of Derek Dooley and the Volunteers. Murray sparked the spanking with a 35-yard touchdown scamper midway through the first quarter. The score rejuvenated his teammates and the Bulldogs never looked back. Over 400 total yards later, Georgia finally had something to smile about.
"We knew that we were capable of coming out and playing like this. We've played like this before, but we haven't been able to get it into the end zone. Today, we were able to put some good drives together and score, which is big for us. The goal all week has been to come out and finish on third downs, and we did a great job with that today," Murray said. "We never fell apart throughout all of this. We are going to keep fighting and keep being physical. We just had a great week of practice, and it really helped us today."
Homecoming presented another challenge, a fiesty Vanderbilt bunch that had gone to Ole Miss and topped the Rebels on the road. Looking for a winning streak for the first time all season, the Bulldogs turned to Murray. The freshman responded with the highest passing total of his career (287 yards), two touchdowns and zero interceptions.
"We felt like we were consistent as an offense and a defense, and this is exactly how we felt we could play all year long," he explained.
After all seemed lost weeks ago, Georgia now finds themselves in a tie for second-place in the SEC East. Call it luck, call it a down season in the division, but with wins over Kentucky and Florida and little help, the Bulldogs could enter November atop the SEC East. What seemed like a lost cause, the SEC Championship Game, now stands as a realistic goal for a team that has had to fight for everything they have gotten in 2010.
With inconsistency along the front line, Green's suspension and schematic alterations on defense, it's been a freshman quarterback who has led the charge. The start to Murray's career has been a trying one. Amidst hype and hyperbole, failure and frustration, chaos and change, Murray has proven to be one of the top quarterbacks in college football's top conference and, more importantly, a calming presence for a team in transition.