KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Mark Richt’s blood dripped off his fingers and onto the stat sheet. Georgia’s head coach had pinched the pinky on his left hand on the table, and he was bleeding.
“How about that?” Richt said, looking down and shaking his head. “Hopefully you guys can stand to look at blood.”
And then Richt talked about his Georgia football team’s 34-31 win over Tennessee, the blood still protruding serving as a perfect metaphor for what had just occurred.
Minutes earlier, the Bulldogs had jumped around madly after Marshall Morgan’s 42-yard field goal won the game in overtime. At least, those who could jump around did so.
Keith Marshall could not. Justin Scott-Wesley could not. Michael Bennett could not.
In all, Georgia finished the game without its two top tailbacks, three of its top receivers, a starting safety, its special-teams captain and its punter.
But it still had Aaron Murray, who engineered a stirring comeback win, saving for now the team’s national championship hopes. Murray completed a game-tying touchdown to Rantavious Wooten with four seconds left, capping a 75-yard drive that began with 1:54 left in regulation.
“These are games you love to play in,” Murray said, then stopped himself and laughed. “Well not really, I’m stressed out. I’m growing some gray hairs right now.”
Last week Murray led the team on a game-winning drive and hit Scott-Wesley for the winner in a 44-41 victory over LSU.
“These are the games you remember,” Murray said. “We’ll talk about these games for a long time. ... I feel like I’ve aged 10, 15 years in the last two weeks.”
“Something’s different about him,” Georgia senior tight end Arthur Lynch said of Murray, his close friend and roommate. “He’s just so cool, calm and collected now. He’s got this kind of moxie about him that I’ve seen this year, that I’ve never seen before. He’s really upped his level of play.”
But while Murray almost carried the depleted offense himself, Georgia’s defense had to get a massive break.
In overtime, Tennessee tailback Pig Howard lost control of the ball as he stretched toward the goal line. It was a touchback, meaning Morgan’s field goal would be enough to win.
“That’s the good thing about this team. It might give me a heart attack, it might give the fans a heart attack. But we play with each other,” Lynch said. “I’m still in shock about this one.”
So Georgia survived. Now the question moves to just how much damage it sustained.
Three of Georgia’s key offensive players suffered what were announced as knee injuries. Marshall, who started in place of injured tailback Todd Gurley, went down in the first quarter. Then receivers Bennett and Scott-Wesley each got hurt in the third quarter.
“There was a lot of scratching of the head up there (in the press box) about what we were gonna do,” offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said. “We just said, ‘Keep playing. Keep playing.’ And to Aaron, ‘I don’t care who’s in there, you treat it like Malcolm Mitchell and Bennett and Justin are all in there. You’ve gotta do what they tell you to do — I’m talking about the defense — whatever they do you’ve gotta go with the ball there and you’ve gotta trust the guys to make plays.’ ”
The defense was already without safety Tray Matthews. Perhaps the tone for the day was set at the coin toss, when one of Georgia’s four captains, Connor Norman, was in sweats, unable to play because of a concussion.
And what’s more, punter Collin Barber suffered a concussion on a blocked punt by Tennessee that tied the game.
Richt said he had never seen a game like it. He said he didn’t know the extent of the injuries but spoke as if they were not short-term.
“I just don’t know what the carnage is right now,” Richt said. “We’ll just have to wait and see.”
Marshall was in tears on the sideline and was carted to the locker room, accompanied by his father. Bennett’s parents went down to the sideline and remained with him on the bench. Bennett tore the ACL in his right knee last season.
Georgia is already without Mitchell, who tore his ACL early in the season opener at Clemson.
“It’s tough. There’s no better feeling than knowing you have a full group of guys to throw to, to hand the ball to. But right now that’s not the case,” Murray said. “We’re gonna have to have guys step up and understand their role is gonna be bigger.”
Georgia jumped out to a 17-3 lead, basically in control of the game even after Marshall’s injury. But then the other injuries piled up, Tennessee’s offense caught fire, and the game changed.
It was a punt block recovered for a touchdown that tied it for the Volunteers, at 17 with 1:25 left in the third quarter. But the twists and turns were only beginning.
Murray jump-started Georgia on its next drive with a 57-yard run down to Tennessee’s 3.
“I was just glad he didn’t pull a hamstring,” Richt said.
Brendan Douglas, one of the replacements for Marshall, scored a touchdown to put Georgia back ahead. But Tennessee had an answer, after a break: Georgia was called for a delay-of-game when the Volunteers were about to punt, with a Bulldogs lineman ruled to have stomped on an opposing player’s foot.
Tennessee went for it on fourth down, with Raijon Neal going 43 yards, setting up an eventual touchdown to tie it again. Then late in the fourth quarter Tennessee quarterback Justin Worley, by this time looking strong in the pocket, led his team downfield, with Raijon Neal scoring from 7 yards out with 1:54 left.
Murray took over. He passed the team down to the 10, and Georgia called timeout with 27 seconds left. Two Tennessee penalties put the ball on the 2 with 14 seconds left.
Murray’s first-down and second-down passes, to walk-on receiver Rhett McGowan, were incomplete. That left eight seconds.
Then on third down Wooten got open just past the goal line. Murray fired the ball in, and Wooten caught it with five seconds left. Morgan’s extra-point kick, after a high snap, was good, and it was tied.
“I had a feeling (Saturday) at the hotel it was gonna be one of those games,” Bobo said. “A barnburner.”
But like that?
“I actually did. I just had a feeling all week it was gonna be one of those games. Not because we were gonna come out flat or we weren’t ready to play,” Bobo said.
But, as it turned out, because of injuries. Now the team awaits word on just how costly a victory it was in Knoxville.