ATHENS - So Georgia is getting star tailback Todd Gurley back for the Florida game. But what about that passing game?
There's no doubt that Georgia's passing offense was off against Vanderbilt. The vertical passing game was nonexistent. The tight ends, despite being relatively healthy, caught a combined two passes. Aaron Murray passed for just 114 yards, the third-lowest total of his 48-game career.
The production was just a continuation of a dip the offense has encountered since the onslaught of injuries began, starting with Gurley's sprained ankle against LSU. Georgia's three worst games in terms of total yards have come the past three games:
- 545 yards vs. Clemson (47th-ranked defense in the nation)
- 536 yards vs. South Carolina (21st-ranked defense)
- 641 yards vs. North Texas (66th-ranked defense)
- 494 yards vs. LSU (44th-ranked defense)
- 434 yards vs. Tennessee (75th-ranked defense)
- 454 yards vs. Missouri (51st-ranked nationally)
- 221 yards vs. Vanderbilt (36th-ranked nationally)
There's a massive dip after the fourth game, a difference of 186 yards per game: Georgia averaged 554 yards in games that Gurley, Keith Marshall, Michael Bennett and Justin Scott-Wesley were available. (Though Gurley was out most of the LSU game and for half of the Clemson game.) And it's an average of 370 yards in the three games they were not.
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Georgia senior tight end Arthur Lynch makes the direct link to injuries, wondering how the nation's most potent offense would fare without five of its key skill position players.
"People talk about Oregon's offense, it's a really good offense. But had we stayed healthy, and it says something about the leagues that we play in, had we stayed healthy it would have been interesting to see our statistics compared to theirs," Lynch said. "If you took away six of their starters I don't think if people would be saying they're the greatest thing since football was made, since Lombardi or whatever."
Getting back Gurley should help. Lynch and Murray argue that defenses played the Bulldogs completely different with Gurley to worry about, opening up the passing game. But the receiving situation is still very much a work in progress, even with Michael Bennett set to return, because Chris Conley may not be ready to go after spraining his ankle.
Murray has admitted that there are still "trust" issues between himself and his receivers. His top four receivers the past two weeks have been Conley, Rantavious Wooten, Rhett McGowan and Reggie Davis. Walk-on Kenneth Towns also saw the field for a few plays. Those first four have all been part of the rotation this year, and Conley is statistically the team's leading receiver.
But Davis is still relatively new to Murray and the offense, so it's not quite as easy as just sending him downfield for another 98-yard touchdown. The veteran receivers have also been pushed into different roles, whether it be from X to Y or X to X. (The names of the three main receiving positions in Georgia's offense.)
So timing and chemistry have remained an issue. When asked about the lack of a downfield passing game, Murray said it was "a little mixture" of not having the full complement of receivers, and the vertical passes just not being there thanks to the defense.
"It all comes down to trust," Murray said. "Trust in our guys to go make plays down the field, and let it rip. We as an offense have to be better with that, and continue to work in practice, and build that. I think once we let it rip and trust those guys, things will open up a little bit more for us."
So what about the middle of the field? Well, the the only have five catches in the past three games, four by Lynch and one by Jay Rome, who remains less than 100 percent because of a sprained ankle.
Lynch was asked specifically about the lack of involvement for the tight ends. He attributed it to the way the defense was playing, keeping the middle of the field clogged up, thanks to less need to guard the perimeter.
"When we had so many guys, it opened up some stuff for me, especially over the middle of the field," Lynch said. "You guys could see that. I was getting the ball more downfield. Now they don't necessarily have to play two-deep, because they don't have two guys screaming down the seam on both sides. I think the coaches are doing a good job to try to get us involved. But again, it's the coverages. It's how Aaron reads. There's one where I was wide-open down the field and probably would have scored on, but Aaron's progression was to take the sure thing. ...
"I think they're allowed to take away the middle of the field, for one. And two, they know that Conley's been so productive for us, they can double him inside more, make it more difficult for him, disrupt his game."
Despite the recent struggles, Georgia still ranks 26th nationally in total offense, and fourth in the SEC, averaging 475 yards per game. Murray is second in the SEC in passing yards per game, trailing only Johnny Manziel.
That's all due to the numbers put up the first four weeks. Replicating that will be difficult, if not impossible, with the players already done for the year. But with Gurley and Bennett on the way back, and if Conley can return quickly, Georgia is hoping to get back to some measure of its previous success.
"We need to find that rhythm that we had," Lynch said. "We were so just in sync those first couple games. But we lost so many guys it's hard to keep in sync because that's the nature of it."