As the Diamond Dogs and Ole Miss battled in extra innings about three hours after Saturday’s G-Day football game, a guy sitting behind me hollered at a friend who was leaving the baseball game.
Naturally, he wanted to talk football.
“If we had to play tomorrow, who’d be the quarterback?” he asked.
His friend didn’t hesitate. “Mettenberger!”
The guy behind me concurred. “That’s what everyone’s saying.”
And, indeed, Zach Mettenberger’s showing at G-Day was the talk of the folks all around us as we filed out of Sanford Stadium Saturday afternoon and walked through campus to the baseball field.
The consensus was pretty clear: Mettenberger, who absolutely cannot start the first game of the season because of a suspension and who was denied a chance to play with the first-string offense on Saturday, nevertheless won the game and was the people’s choice as the quarterback who ought to start.
Or as one fan put it while trudging up Sanford Drive after the game: “Mark Richt and Mike Bobo have a mess on their hands at quarterback.”
Obviously, Mettenberger had the best day statistically, going 6 of 10 passing for 150 yards and two touchdowns, compared with Logan Gray’s workmanlike 10 of 17 for 132 yards and one TD, and presumptive front-runner Aaron Murray’s disappointing 10 of 22 for 96 yards, no score and one interception.
But it wasn’t really the statistics that wowed the G-Day crowd. It was Mettenberger’s rifle-like passes that several times threaded the needle through coverage, and the fact that while he may be the least mobile of the three quarterbacks, he looked the most comfortable under pressure, smoothly stepping up in the pocket to avoid blitzing defenders and delivering his passes with zip and precision.
The other two QBs looked more harried, particularly Murray, who not only threw a pick on an ill-advised attempt to avoid a sack but also threw a couple of panicky passes that seemed to accomplish nothing more than letting someone else take the hit. Murray also overthrew most of his long passes.
Another factor appeared to be that at 6-foot-5 Mettenberger had an advantage in seeing over the pass rush and downfield, which on this day seemed to make up for the fact that he is less likely to roll out or keep the ball than Gray or Murray.
The fans I overheard or talked with after the game all were surprised that Mettenberger didn’t get a shot behind the first-string line late in the game, a decision by Richt/Bobo pretty universally interpreted as part of his punishment. As if the coaches were saying: “You might have had the best day, but you’re still No. 3 in the QB battle until you’ve served your suspension.”
Which is probably fair, but nonetheless is frustrating. As one fan walking behind me pondered, “What if he’s still the best quarterback when the season starts? He can’t play in the first game. Do you then throw him in against South Carolina without any game experience? Or do you continue to start your second-best quarterback just because your best one got arrested?”
A mess, indeed.
We don’t know, of course, what Richt and Bobo are thinking, but unless Murray really turns things around in August and shows a lot more than he did on Saturday, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if Gray, who spent most of G-Day playing with the first-string unit, got the starter’s job by default. He is, after all, the only QB with real-game experience.
But I’m becoming more and more convinced that by the end of the season, the starter will be the lanky kid from Watkinsville who may have taken himself out of the starter’s race with his poor decisions off the field but who made a lot of converts among the nearly 39,000 at Sanford Stadium on G-Day.
As Artie Lynch, who caught a 39-yard scoring strike from Mettenberger with 12 seconds left in the first half put it after the game: “The kid’s been gifted with an NFL arm and NFL size.”
Saturday was his day to shine. I don’t think it will be his last.