(UPDATED: 1:15 a.m.)
COLUMBIA, Mo. — By the time this night was over, Georgia had to be more than just somebody else’s memory.
Decades from now, there couldn’t be any warm-and-fuzzy storylines about how some newbie won its first SEC game, because the flip side to that would be that the Bulldogs had lost it. There couldn’t be the tale of how a long-standing program (Georgia) had stumbled in its conference opener for the third straight season, this time falling to a program (Missouri) that some questioned was even worthy of this leap.
But by the time the evening ended, Georgia didn’t have to worry about that. The Dogs had several early hiccups Saturday. They turned the ball over. They committed penalties. They trailed as late as 20-17 with less than three minutes left in the third quarter. Then they changed the script.
The Dogs scored the final 24 points of the game. They scored 38 in the final 30:30 of the game after managing only a field goal in the first 29:30. They won 41-20.
It’s too early to know if Georgia is a great team. But that is how great teams react. They take over games and look like they’re ready for the moment, especially when the opponent looks like it isn’t.
As the game ended, Georgia fans in one corner of Memorial Stadium, chanted, “Old man football! Old man football!” The reference was to the Missouri player who had mocked their style.
Big mistake by the Tigers. Fond memory for the Bulldogs.
“We all heard it — that was great,” quarterback Aaron Murray said.
“”Hilarious,” wide receiver Marlon Brown added.
It was 3-3 until late in the second quarter. Brown said, “I was thinking, ‘Wow, this really is ‘old man football’ — for both teams.”
But Georgia drove to a touchdown with 30 seconds left in the first half, and suddenly it couldn’t be stopped. In one stretch they scored on five of six possessions (four touchdowns and a field goal), although the last two touchdowns of the game were gimmes, set up by Missouri turnovers caused by linebacker Jarvis Jones: an interception and return to the Mizzou 1, and a sack and forced fumble at the 5.
“I think we showed people we can play,” Jones said. “In the first half, they threw a variety of punches at us, they showed us everything they had. In the second half we were more comfortable. And we made plays.”
Meanwhile, the Tigers unraveled. It started with their head coach, Gary Pinkel. He called for a fake punt early in the fourth quarter when Georgia led only 24-20. Some might call that the element of surprise. In reality, it was an awful message to send his players. It was like telling them, “We can’t win this playing normal football.” There is nothing wrong with calling a fake punt, but not at that point of the game.
Also, it failed. Punter Trey Barrow was stuffed on a fourth-and-11 run by Sheldon Dawson at the Tigers’ 38. The Dogs converted that into a field goal and outscored Missouri 17-0 from that points.
Jones: “That was a big turning point for us.”
Nobody went into Saturday expecting a blowout win. Georgia showed flaws last week against Buffalo (soft defensive line, off-target quarterback), was missing bodies (four defensive starters suspended) and was playing on the road against a solid opponent that obviously was pumped for its SEC debut.
But the one thing nobody in Athens wanted or expected was a reminder of last season’s first significant test of the season. Remember the Boise State game? The Bulldogs looked outcoached and overmatched physically by a perceived inferior team that night. They trailed 28-7 in the third quarter and lost 35-21.
That’s sort of what it looked like for a half (or more) against Missouri. The offensive line didn’t block well. Murray was off target. He frequently overthrew receivers, and the one time when he underthrew a receiver (Brown), the pass was intercepted — and on the first play after Georgia had recovered a Missouri fumble.
There were other problems. Malcolm Mitchell belatedly and foolishly decided to field a punt on a bounce and in traffic. Of course, he got hit and fumbled. The Dogs finished with 12 penalties, including five false starts. There were dropped passes. Placekicker Marshall Morgan made 52-and 41-yard field goals but missed an extra point and had another ricochet in off the upright.
But defense, despite also having some bumps, kept the Dogs in it until Murray and the offense got going. With Georgia trailing 20-17, Murray completed consecutive passes to Brown (40 yards), Michael Bennett (22) and Brown (11) again, the last one for a touchdown and a 24-20 lead.
Missouri panicked. It didn’t look ready for the moment. Pinkel’s fake punt backfired. It was over.
This memory was all Georgia’s.
By Jeff Schultz