It wasn’t the day to impress fans, many of whom booed.
It wasn’t the day to impress poll voters.
There probably were even a few off-duty BCS-contributing computers, kicking back on a rainy Saturday, pondering the data — kickoff returned for a touchdown; punt blocked for a touchdown; two turnovers; tied in the third quarter with North Texas — then crashed and were forced to reboot.
But what does it really mean?
Understand, it’s not great that Georgia, a potential BCS bowl team, struggled for far too long against North Texas, a potential third-place team in Conference USA’s West Division. It certainly is never good when an SEC team hand-picks a nonconference opponent, is willing to stroke that school’s administration a $975,000 check because the home team needed an easy week before a big game (LSU), and then finds itself in a mess — tied 21-21 with the third quarter half over.
But this kind of thing often happens in small games before big games. It often happens to Georgia, which seemingly plays down to the level of lesser competition as often as it plays up to superior ones.
No Georgia player, and certainly no coach, ever was going to admit Saturday that their focus might have drifted during the week while preparing for the “Mean Green” (which is difficult to even say while keeping a straight face). Players were going to say the right things: “North Texas is good. … We made mistakes. … We weren’t looking ahead.” But in reality, has anybody not been thinking about LSU since the South Carolina game two weeks ago?
Wide receiver Chris Conley probably came the closest afterward to admitting a problem when he said: “Maybe this is a wake-up — a wake-up for our special teams, a wake-up for our offense. But it’s a good time to have that happen right now. Now we have another week to prepare for LSU, and we can work on getting better.”
Georgia won 45-21. The final was impressive, even if the route to getting there wasn’t.
It pays in situations like this to have leaders such as Aaron Murray. The Georgia quarterback stepped into the huddle in the third quarter when the score was tied and told teammates, “Just relax.”
“That’s the one thing everyone said: Hey, we’re fine. Let’s just play ball and have fun,” Murray said. “The ball’s in our hands now, so let’s go down and score.”
They did. Eight plays, 53 yards in 2:42, touchdown (Murray on a 1-yard run). Twelve plays, 95 yards in 4:41, touchdown (Murray on a 4-yard pass to Conley). That made the score 35-21, and North Texas finally was toast. Then everybody was ready to move on.
“They made us fight. That’s good for us,” Murray said. “It’s always good to get into a dogfight and see what we’re made of.
“I’m sure everybody is going to be a Monday morning quarterback. But at the end of the day it’s a win, and we’re not going to apologize for winning a game. I’m proud of the way we fought.”
It would easy to dismiss the closeness of the game as being the result of two two freak plays — a 99-yard kickoff return by North Texas’ Brelan Chancellor and the high snap that led to the blocked punt and recovery in the end zone for the tying score. But those are two plays in a football game, plays that Georgia can’t afford to make against LSU.
Murray threw for 408 yards and three touchdowns. But he also wasn’t immune to problems — with an early red-zone interception, trying to squeeze a pass through an impossible window to Michael Bennett in the end zone on second-and-goal from the 3. (“I have to make a better decision there.”)
Two special-teams breakdowns, two turnovers … it doesn’t take much to keep lesser teams in games. Things were going so well for North Texas, it might’ve been tempted to give some of the $975,000 back.
Georgia finished with 641 yards of offense. The Mean Green finished with 245 (only seven rushing on 25 attempts). But when the score is 21-21 in the third quarter and Las Vegas had one team favored by 32 1/2 points, it’s not going to go over well.
Dogs fans transitioned from grumbling (early interception) to scattered boos to apoplectic. Leading only 21-14 at halftime, Georgia’s offense opened the second half with its third three-and-out of the game, and then had a punt blocked for the tying touchdown.
“I don’t care,” tight end Arthur Lynch said when asked about the boos. “The thing I care about are the people I have personal relationships with — my teammates and my coaches. As much as I love our fan base, I don’t have a personal relationship with 90,000 people. I know my mom’s not booing, so I don’t really care.”
More Lynch: “People are very nit-picky and they want a perfect game, but nobody plays a perfect game.”
They won the game. Maybe they didn’t win over many disbelievers, but by next week it won’t matter. Beat LSU and nobody will be nit-picking.