ATHENS - On his radio show Monday night, Georgia head coach Mark Richt had a caller pepper him with concerns about a trio of subjects: the left side of the offensive line, one of the play calls at Clemson, and who’s returning punts. Richt addressed the final two. He let slide the subject of his offensive line.
Perhaps it just slipped his mind. Or perhaps Richt just figured there was no use. At this point, what else can be said?
Perhaps more worrisome for the Georgia football program, it’s also unknown what else can be done.
Aaron Murray has been sacked 86 times in his career. The Georgia senior quarterback has started (and played the vast majority of) 42 games, and in just seven of those has he NOT been sacked. Six times, he has been sacked at least four times.
The latest came Saturday, when Clemson, not exactly known for its defense, sent Murray to the ground four times. Once, he fumbled after being nailed from the blind side. It was a miracle he didn’t fumble a couple drives earlier on a similar play.
Afterwards, Murray, Richt and offensive coordinator Mike Bobo did their best not to throw the line under the bus. Richt blamed crowd noise for messing up the snap count. Bobo said the line actually did well, although he granted that “a couple times we got whipped.”
That’s a theme of this line: It might not fail most of the time. But when it fails, it does so spectacularly.
Oh, and by the way, Georgia’s next opponent is South Carolina, which has Jadeveon Clowney, so good luck with those one-week improvements.
Through the years, the question of Murray’s performances in big games has risen and fallen and risen again after another defeat, this time in a top-10 matchup to open the season. But that tired refrain consistently ignores the reality of Murray’s pass protection, at least what there is of it.
Nobody points out that in 2010, when Murray was a freshman, the experienced line that was supposed to be the foundation of the team was instead a bust.
Nobody points out that in 2011, when Georgia started 0-2, the line looked terrible, particularly in the loss to Boise State.
And nobody points out that in 2012, when Georgia was blown out at South Carolina, the line was simply overmatched by Clowney and company.
Last year, Georgia yielded 29 sacks, ranking it ninth in the SEC in pass protection. In 2011, Georgia yielded 33 sacks, ranking eighth in the SEC and 85th nationally. And in 2010, Georgia was sacked 24 times, ranking seventh in the SEC and 62nd nationally.
This isn’t to say Murray is perfect. The interception Saturday night was his fault, and he had some other throws that were a bit off the mark. That will happen.
But when you’ve spent your whole career playing behind an average-at-best line, it’s no surprise you play a bit jumpy at times. It’s no surprise you rush your throws sometimes. It’s no surprise you get happy feet.
Put Murray on Alabama, and the Tide still win two national championships, perhaps a third this year. Put A.J. McCarron on Georgia, and McCarron probably gets sacked more than Murray has, considering Murray’s better mobility.
So why hasn’t it gotten better? When you’re depending on five spots, there’s no quick fix. One recruit can’t turn it around the way Todd Gurley did the running game. You need several very good recruits, and Georgia just hasn’t had much luck lately.
During the Richt era, Georgia has recruited just six offensive linemen rated in the top 100 overall, according to the 247Sports composite. Compare that to nine tailbacks, seven receivers, and five quarterbacks.
The five best offensive line recruits, according to the 247Sports composite, were John Theus, Justin Anderson, Austin Long, A.J. Harmon and Brent Benedict. The latter three left before their eligibility was up, Anderson didn’t nail down a starting job until he was a senior, and Theus didn’t start Saturday.
Some more lightly regarded players have turned out to be better. But in his four years, Murray hasn’t played behind any lineman who was either a first-round pick or a first-team All-American. Cordy Glenn, a second-round pick after Murray’s sophomore season, comes the closest.
Earlier this summer, Richt made an interesting point. You don’t need superstars on your line, Richt said, rather you need five good players playing together, and he’d rather have that than a few all-stars and a few weak links.
Georgia hasn’t been able to have that cohesive, no-weak-link unit until late in the season. By then, it’s already cost the Bulldogs some big games, whether it be South Carolina last year, Boise State the year before, or much of that 1-4 start in Murray’s freshman year.
Perhaps the line will once again right itself as this season goes along. Maybe everything will be clicking as the season nears an end.
But once again, the damage has already been done. Once again in a big game, the line failed Murray.
Contact Seth Emerson at email@example.com