ATHENS, Ga. – One of Mark Richt's most valuable survival tools in 13 seasons in the feral Southeastern Conference is his buttoned-down demeanor.
While fans zigzag between despair and jubilation, the Georgia Bulldogs coach rarely strays far from even keel. He is allergic to overreaction.
But after his Georgia Bulldogs survived a 44-41 free-for-all against LSU on Saturday, it was a different Richt hamming it up between the hedges. He walked along in front of the stands pumping his fist at the roaring fans, yelling, "Yes!" And as he headed for the locker room he doubled down on the celebration, throwing both fists in the air and bellowing, "Yes! Yes!"
"I don't normally get as emotional as I did after this one," Richt admitted.
He alluded to personal reasons behind his postgame scene without divulging any details. But the game itself had to play a part in the exultation, too. And the month Richt's bunch has just experienced.
If ever a team had a right to seriously celebrate in September, it's the 2013 Georgia Bulldogs.
Three Top 10 opponents faced. Three wild shootouts endured. One hundred sixty-five points scored. One hundred thirty points allowed. One suspended star safety missing from the opener. One starting receiver lost for the year on a touchdown celebration. One star running back injured in this game.
Three victories. One loss.
All aspirations still in play.
"We still have all of our hopes and dreams alive," said quarterback Aaron Murray, who outdueled former Georgia roommate and current LSU QB Zach Mettenberger in a big-time matchup. "It's been tough, but we definitely grew up a lot. If we didn't face Clemson and South Carolina the first two games, I don't think we would've won today."
The toughened Bulldogs have played as many heavyweights in one month as a lot of national title contenders play all season. They had to regroup after the season-opening, three-point loss at Clemson. They responded with an 11-point victory in a must-win situation against South Carolina, then a sloppy victory over soft touch North Texas. And then it was time to ratchet up the intensity for LSU, and for one more physical and emotional battle in this opening gauntlet.
Having played the toughest schedule in America to date, Georgia has established itself as America's best one-loss team – and better than several unbeatens. Now the Bulldogs just need to maintain adequate focus and intensity in what should be eight straight games as a solid favorite. Take care of business between now and December, and Georgia will be back in the Southeastern Conference championship game and perhaps playing for a shot at the national title.
Of course, thinking that far ahead is like fingernails down a chalkboard for football coaches. Richt was a very happy camper Saturday night, but was veering back toward even keel by the time he met the media.
"We're going to Knoxville, Tennessee, man," he said. "If anyone thinks it's going to be easier, you're crazy."
Call me crazy. But it's going to be easier.
Neither Tennessee nor anyone else on the October schedule (Missouri, Vanderbilt) possesses a defense capable of stopping Georgia's magnificent offensive machine – which hung more points on LSU than any opponent in five years. The only remaining regular-season opponent with any shot at that is Florida, but the Gators appear to lack the firepower necessary to win big games in the current SEC climate.
The Year of the Shootout in the SEC continued apace with this game, an offensive orgy that saw the teams total 944 yards, 10 touchdowns and only four punts. As good as Murray was (20-34 for 298 yards, four touchdowns and one interception), Mettenberger might have been better (23-37 for 372 yards and three TDs). The only thing that mitigated Mettenberger's performance was his four sacks, while the more mobile and pocket-savvy Murray was never sacked.
Mettenberger showcased not only his big arm, but impressive accuracy throwing downfield as well. The former Georgia QB repeatedly fired passes into small windows, and receivers Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. kept coming up with catches in traffic.
"Did you see the throws?" Richt asked admiringly. "I thought they were pretty amazing. That was a guy who can thread it."
Richt had high praise for his quarterback as well, saying, "He played beautifully. He played clutch."
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The clutch part has been a sticking point for Murray in the minds of some Georgia fans, who have long maintained he cannot win the big one. But "the big one" remains a moving target.
Beating South Carolina on Sept. 7? That was awfully big, and Murray was brilliant in that game. But the Gamecocks still do not carry the cache of LSU, so there again was chatter about Murray needing to win this game to validate himself.
Not only did the fifth-year senior do it, but he did it in spectacular fashion with the game on the line. Having fallen behind 41-37 with 4:14 to play and missing injured tailback Todd Gurley (sprained ankle), Murray led a six-play, 75-yard blitzkrieg for the winning touchdown.
Murray was 4-for-4 on the decisive drive for 55 yards. Georgia was so efficient on that possession that it never faced a third-down conversion and had only one second down – and that was a second-and-one.
"When the line gives him time to make the throw," said receiver Justin Scott-Wesley, "he's going to make the throw."
Murray made the throws. Just enough of them to outscore the Tigers, and enough to spur a postgame curtain call by the Georgia offense. After getting to the locker room, coordinator Mike Bobo sent his unit back out onto the field to thank the fans.
Meanwhile, buttoned-down Mark Richt was doing his own fist-pumping victory tour of Sanford Stadium. It was quite a celebration scene for September, but it was richly deserved.
"I never sleep the night after games," Richt said. "After this one, I might not sleep for two nights."