ATHENS – Have you heard? The Georgia quarterback can’t play in big games. He can’t beat great teams. He melts in big moments. He is 0-4 against top 10 teams, 2-8 against ranked teams. He lost to South Carolina. Twice. He’s no David Greene, no D.J. Shockley and he sure ain’t no Buck Belue.
This is how the story about Aaron Murray gets spun. Not that he has thrown 75 touchdown passes in 2½ years, or that he threw for over 400 yards the week after his father had cancer surgery, or that Georgia has won six games this season not in spite of its quarterback but because of him — because the six wins certainly can’t be attributed to special teams or the soft-as-nougat defense (paraphrasing Shawn Williams).
Here is the problem with “the book” on Murray. It’s short-sighted. It’s the cheap-and-easy pop that goes an inch deep instead of Butts-Mehre-wide. The 0-4 and 2-8 records technically are accurate. But that’s a program statement. Since 2008 – two seasons before Murray started a game — Georgia is 1-9 against top 10 teams and 6-14 against top 25s. Does Murray get blamed for that, too, or is that on coach Mark Richt and his staff?
We do this with quarterbacks. They’re the lightning rods. They’re the can’t-win-the-big-game guys until schleps like John Elway or Peyton Manning win Super Bowls, and then we move on to the next guy. We look at a guy like Murray leading four second-half touchdown drives in the loud, zoo-like surroundings at Missouri and think, “OK, that was impressive.” But then Missouri devolves into an 0-4 conference newbie and we think, “OK, that wasn’t a big deal.”
This week it’s Florida. Murray was asked the inevitable question of trying to win the big game. He responded appropriately: “I just ignore it. I’m not playing Florida myself.”
I imagine his psychology degree and post-graduate work has enabled him to remove the emotion from the process in matters like this.
On Florida again: “You can’t go in there stressed. I have to be positive in my thoughts and let her rip. Sometimes, maybe I try to be too perfect or too cautious, thinking about not throwing an interception. My goal this week is to trust my abilities, trust my preparation and just go out there and let it rip.”
Georgia has only one edge over Florida. It’s at quarterback and nowhere else.
Murray is better than Jeff Driskel. He has thrown for more yards (1,914 to 929) and more touchdowns (16 to 8). But Driskel doesn’t play on a team that has underachieved relative to its perceived talent level. He has benefited from the Gators having a great defense. The Gators physically beat two highly ranked teams, LSU and South Carolina, so nobody is questioning their quarterback’s leadership or resolve.
Murray is not the same kid who looked unnerved in Jacksonville two years ago. He was intercepted on the Dogs’ first play, committed two more turnovers in the second quarter that led to Florida touchdowns and threw third interception (fourth turnover) in overtime, enabling the Gators to win 34-31.
“He was just a young quarterback who made some freshman mistakes,” senior Marlon Brown said. “But he’s overcome that.”
Last season’s meeting was better but still not great. He completed only 15 of 39 and had an early interception, but he threw a pair of fourth-down touchdown passes and led the Bulldogs to a 24-20 win.
“People ask do you get a little nervous for Florida? I’m not nervous. Since that first year, once the game gets going I don’t worry about all the extra stuff any more.”
He has evolved as a leader, fortunately in a less combustible way than Shawn Williams (who might’ve been on target when he labeled his team’s defense “soft” but he effectively threw teammates under the bus when he mandated lineup changes).
Murray has taken a more cerebral approach in his leadership than Williams. His graduate work in industrial-organizational psychology led him to study the qualities of NFL quarterbacks like Tom Brady. For one project, he surveyed teammates and coaches on where they believed he fell short as a leader. Their feedback: Murray needed to be more vocal. So he has been this season, without cutting off anybody at the knees.
“In some instances I need to be more demanding and vocal,” he said. “I have to make sure guys are accountable.”
He was beat up physically and emotionally recently. Georgia had lost to South Carolina. His house was egged by lunatics. His father underwent surgery. He even got a speeding ticket driving back to Athens from Florida following the bye week. But he tried to stay upbeat publicly.
“Fake it ’til you make it, I guess,” he said. “Especially as the quarterback, I have to make sure I have a high energy level. Running around, screaming and yelling and having fun, making sure guys see that I’m ready to go.”
It’s opportunity week. Georgia can take control in the SEC East. Murray can put to rest criticism about big-game performances. Quarterbacks are defined by games like this, fair or unfair. Here’s Murray’s chance to rewrite “the book.”
By Jeff Schultz