The morning after: Winning at a heavy cost

semerson@macon.comOctober 6, 2013 

KNOXVILLE- The conversation overheard at breakfast here sums up the starkness of reactions to yet another heart-attack worthy Georgia football game.

A hotel employee and a couple Tennessee fans were discussing the game. So exciting they said. Oh darn, we lost by a field goal. But what a game.

The pulse of the Georgia fan base, as judged by my Twitter feed and other online sources, was quite different: Their team won the battle, but may have lost the war.

As I prepare to hit the road back to Athens, some thoughts on where this 34-31 injury-riddled victory leaves the Bulldogs:

- We’ll find out Sunday evening just how serious the injuries are, but all signs, including the tone in the postgame locker room, indicated some extended absences. It doesn't appear tailback Keith Marshall and receivers Michael Bennett and Justin Scott-Wesley will not be back anytime soon. The injured skill-position player with the best chance to play against Missouri is Todd Gurley, who Mark Richt called “50-50” to play this Saturday. Those weren’t the only players out: Punter Collin Barber sustained a concussion on the blocked punt touchdown, so he has to be questionable-to-doubtful for Missouri. Safety Tray Matthews, who didn’t make the trip with a hamstring, tweeted that he’ll be back for the next game, and Georgia really needs him to be right.

- So what to do at receiver? It’s not hopeless, with Chris Conley still around (remember his one-handed touchdown catch on Saturday?), and Rantavious Wooten is showing he can be a factor. Rhett McGowan is an experienced hand too. The two players who Richt mentioned after the game – saying they would now get more practice reps – were walk-on Kenneth Towns (who played at Tennessee) and redshirt freshman Blake Tibbs.

The other intriguing names are Jonathan Rumph and Tramel Terry, neither of whom have played this season, due to injuries. Rumph will play as soon as his hamstring allows it, but he’s also going to have to show maximum effort in practice in order to gain the coaches’ and Murray’s confidence. Trust me, Rumph won’t just be put out there once he’s healthy. Terry is a dicier proposition. The question isn’t effort, but whether his knee is healthy enough to burn the redshirt at this juncture. Terry has been practicing this season, but not yet with the expectation of playing. Would he be effective enough to play? I suspect Georgia will take a long hard look at it this week.

Finally, there’s another solution that doesn’t involve burning redshirts: Use more I-formation, requiring just two wideouts, or you can also flex out Jay Rome or Arthur Lynch, playing the two tight ends together.

- And what about the tailbacks? Well, the first priority is getting Gurley back. Then you have J.J. Green and Brendan Douglas as seemingly capable backups, with Green offering some explosive ability. Freshman A.J. Turman, who was actually the higher-rated tailback recruit this year, has yet to play, his preseason derailed by injuries. Turman was on the trip and in uniform Saturday, but the team didn't use him, even with Gurley out and Marshall injured in the first quarter. Mark Richt will be asked Sunday whether Turman is in the plans.

But let us not totally dwell on the injuries:

- Aaron Murray moved further into the pantheon of great quarterbacks. He’s always had the stats. Now the aura of winner and clutch quarterback have been added. To do what he did, leading that final drive with all those injured stars on the sideline, and with basically the G-Day scout team, should go down as one of his finest performances. It didn’t hurt his Heisman campaign that it happened again on national television. It’s still too early to truly assess his chances of winning the award, but he’s at least becoming a favorite to be invited to New York for the ceremony.

But let us not totally dwell on the positive:

- Georgia’s defense regressed in the second half, after an encouraging first half. Todd Grantham said afterwards that Tennessee just adjusted well, getting more yards on the perimeter, both in the run and pass. So why didn’t Grantham adjust accordingly? He didn’t say so, but it probably goes back to what he said last week, about not wanting to change the gameplan much with such a young defense. Overall, there were more discouraging signs for Georgia’s defense: Justin Worley looked like a poised SEC quarterback, completing 17 of 31 attempts for 215 yards and a touchdown, and hit on some big third-down throws. The run defense also took a step back, allowing the tailbacks 5.7 yards per carry, and a total of 194 yards. Grantham, to his credit, did not dodge that his unit had a rough game, several times referring to it as a learning experience. Still, this quote stood out: “We made one more play than they did.” Which play did he mean? When Tennessee’s Pig Howard fumbled the ball across the pylon? If that's what Grantham meant, then he was being quite charitable.

- The Missouri game now looks fairly dangerous for the Bulldogs. Missouri will come in unbeaten, and although it has come against a weak schedule, the Tigers have at least done so in impressive fashion. They won convincingly at Vanderbilt on Saturday, putting up 51 points in the process, and have scored at least 38 points in all five of its games thus far. Yes, the competition was Murray State, Toledo, Indiana, Arkansas State and Vanderbilt. But is Georgia’s defense that much better these days? Now throw in Georgia’s injury problems on offense, and while the Bulldogs will still be favored and at home, this game should definitely have their attention.

- All this is not to paint a very bleak picture. Georgia has issues on defense and special teams, and the injuries are now shadowing the offense. But perspective calls for remembering what this team has done the past few weeks. Arthur Lynch referred to these games giving his team and its fans a heart attack every week. Murray joked that he had aged 10-15 years the past two games. Richt looks like he already has. But Georgia has taken some big hits, and found itself in some tough holes, and is still sitting at No. 6 in the country, controlling its fate.

- Final thought: Georgia has now won two straight games that so-called teams of destiny usually win. But between the injuries and the play of the defense, running the table is going to be very difficult. Nothing can be done about the injuries. So it’s on the defense now, which at minimum has to move beyond being a liability, and become a whole lot better if this team wants to win it all.

Related stories:

From the locker room: 'These are the games you remember'

Marshall, Scott-Wesley out for the season

What now at tailback and receiver?

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