A note: This ran in today’s print AJC. I present it to you, our digital patrons, in the interest of full disclosure.
Tampa — Aaron Murray tried to put on a happy face, but it was a struggle. Georgia’s quarterback returned home for the Outback Bowl and will leave not as a conquering hero but as one of the causes of his team’s demise.
“I think the whole Dog Nation is very excited about this team,” Murray said afterward. “I know we’re very excited.”
The blare of a turnaround season was muted by the doings here Monday. Georgia led 16-0 but lost 33-30 in three overtimes, and the crazy game turned in the third quarter on two Murray interceptions. The first led to Michigan State’s first touchdown. The second became the Spartans’ second touchdown, and it marked the fourth time this season a Murray interception had been returned for a score.
On the first interception, Murray scrambled right and spotted Tavarres King open over the middle. He expected King to backtrack. Instead King turned and went deeper. Murray’s pass was intercepted by a diving Darqueze Dennard.
“There was a little miscommunication in the scramble drill,” Murray said.
The second interception, also taken by Dennard, was a product of a quick Murray read and a tipped throw to his left. “It got nicked,” Murray said, “and got a little off-course.”
Dennard’s 38-yard return cut Georgia’s lead to two points. Asked if he felt he’d let the grasping Spartans back in the game, Murray said: “I don’t think so. We were still up 16-14. We still kept playing. Our guys have shown all year they’re not going to fold.”
Michigan State took a 20-19 lead with 8:22 to play, whereupon Murray led Georgia’s best drive of a halting day. He threw four passes, completing three, for 83 yards and ultimately a go-back-ahead touchdown to redeployed defender Brandon Boykin. Then Murray found Malcolm Mitchell for a two-point conversion. Georgia led 27-20 with 6:44 to play.
But it wouldn’t hold. The Bulldogs couldn’t run out the clock, choosing to run up the middle to force the Spartans to use their timeouts, and were undone when Michigan State tied it with 14 seconds remaining in regulation. In overtime, three Georgia possessions lost a total of four yards. Murray threw four passes in the OTs, all incomplete.
Murray’s final numbers: Twenty completions in 32 attempts, 288 yards passing, two touchdowns, two interceptions, one lost fumble, four sacks. Not the worst day ever, but not good enough.
Asked about Murray, coach Mark Richt said: “Aaron’s future is very bright. He’s one of the best quarterbacks in the country in my mind and he’ll be one of the better quarterbacks who’ll be returning. He’s a guy we’ve got an awful lot of faith in. He’s human; he’s going to make mistakes.”
Speaking of 2012, Murray said: “As a team, we’re definitely excited about the future. But we definitely could have pulled out a couple of more wins.”
Someone wondered if this loss, coming as it did 4.6 miles from Plant High, Murray’s alma mater, hurt worse than the others. “It’s the same,” Murray said. “A loss is a loss.”
By Mark Bradley