ATHENS — One win away.
That’s how far the Georgia Bulldogs are from returning to the SEC Championship game. They got one step closer to it Saturday with a harder-than-it-looked 37-10 win over Ole Miss on homecoming at Sanford Stadium.
To get all the way to the Georgia Dome — where they lost to LSU in the championship game a year ago — the Bulldogs will have to do what it has often had to do when it was in position to win a conference title. It will have to go through Auburn.
The No. 6 Bulldogs (8-1, 6-1 SEC) will repeat as SEC Eastern Division champions if they can beat their oldest rival next weekend in Jordan-Hare Stadium. The Tigers (2-7, 0-6), who won the national championship just two years ago, are still looking for their first conference win of season.
Because of what’s on the line next week Saturday on “The Plains,” Georgia’s postgame celebration was short-lived.
“I tried to start the minute the game was over,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “I told them right away they needed to get their minds right now; get your jaws set. Auburn’s a fierce rival. They don’t like Georgia and they’re going to play their tails off. Hopefully with what’s on the line they’ll respect that.”
Georgia’s players were listening.
“Auburn is all that’s on our minds,” said freshman tailback Todd Gurley, who recorded his sixth 100-yard rushing game of the season (117 on 18 carries). “Now it’s the biggest game. That’s the one we’ve got to have.”
Said senior receiver Tavarres King:“This league is insane; the athletes are all so good,”“Anybody can slip up on anybody any day. We won’t overlook anybody.”
Saturday provided a good lesson to that end as it took the Bulldogs a while to get going against Ole Miss (5-4, 2-3 SEC) Georgia actually trailed for all but the final three seconds of the first half. That’s when the game turned on a scintillating touchdown pass from Aaron Murray to King.
Georgia faced third-and-20 at its 40-yard line after Murray had been sacked on back-to-back plays. They were sack numbers four and five in the first half and it appeared the Bulldogs would be satisfied with trailing by three at the half.
They weren’t. Offensive coordinator Mike Bobo called for deep routes down each sideline. After pump-faking to the left side, which moved the Ole Miss safety, Murray evaded pressure and ran to the right. He found King running free behind Ole Miss cornerback inside the Rebels’ 20 and delivered a strike.
“I just threw my hand up and gave Murray a hooty-hoo and he saw me,” King said. “It was one of those plays where we just saw each other, our eyes connected and he made a great play.”
That and Marshall Morgan’s extra point gave the Bulldogs a 14-10 lead as it left the field for intermission. The Bulldogs did so with the knowledge it would receive the second-half kickoff. They took full advantage, scoring on their next two offensive possessions and that was pretty much that.
“It was good to get 14 points in a row; it was crucial,” Richt said. “I thought Ole Miss out-played us in the first half. We out-scored them but they out-played us.”
Murray also had a 66-yard touchdown pass to Marlon Brown earlier in the second quarter and was pretty much unstoppable from then until the Bulldogs took their foot off the gas in the fourth quarter. By then they led 30-10.
It was a nice rebound for Murray, who had three interceptions in last week’s win over Florida. The junior from Tampa finished the night with 384 yards and four touchdowns on 21-of-28 passing. Already the school record-holder, he now has 80 career TD passes, which is sixth in SEC history.
“I’m a little sore, but nothing that a good ice bath won’t take care of,” said Murray, who was hit several other times in addition to the sacks. “You always feel better after a big win like this.”
Murray didn’t want to waste much time talking about Saturday’s game. He was already focused on next week.
“It’s going to be a tough game,” he said. “It’s at their place. Anytime you play away, it’s always a challenge. It’s going to be a love environment and it’s a big-time rivalry game. We know they’re going to be ready to go and we to be, too.”
The Bulldogs’ defense that was the story of the second half. They limited Ole Miss to just 55 yards after halftime and actually out-scored the Rebels’ 2-0 from the 11:45 mark of the second quarter on. That was thanks to a safety by linebacker Alec Ogletree, who also had an interception, a sack and led Georgia with 11 tackles. Ole Miss had three turnovers and managed just 46 yards on 29 rushes.
“It doesn’t get much better than that,” Ogletree said. “We made adjustments to shut them down. It was great.”
Momentum was either team’s to take in the first half. The two teams combined for four turnovers in five plays midway through the second quarter. The series began with Georgia’s Keith Marshall fumbling on a run around left end. The fumble was caused by Ole Miss linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche, a redshirt freshman from Grayson.
The Rebels took over at the Georgia 31, but gave the ball back on the very next play. It’d probably be more accurate to say the Bulldogs took it. After catching a pass deep in Georgia territory, Ole Miss receiver Vince Sanders was swarmed by Bulldogs. Safety Bacarri Rambo ripped the ball loose and cornerback Damian Swann scooped it up and returned it 53 yards to the Mississippi 30.
But the Bulldogs could only keep possession for one play. On the second, tailback Todd Gurley broke off right tackle for a 13-yard gain. But once again Nkemdiche forced the ball loose and the Rebels recovered at their own 12.
Then Ole Miss gave it right back again. Scrambling right under heavy pressure, the Ole Miss quarterback hurled a long pass high over the middle of the field. Linebacker Alec Ogletree rose high for the leaping interception and Georgia took over on offense again, this time at its own 49.
Ultimately the hot-potato exchange didn’t lead to anything. Georgia eventually went for a first down on fourth-and-two at the Ole Miss 43 and failed to complete a pass to Malcolm Mitchell. Then the Rebels had to punt the ball back on downs after the next possession, setting up the nine-play, 84-yard drive for the Bulldogs to take the lead.
Georgia found itself on its heels in the early going, falling behind 10-0 early in the second quarter on a 13-yard touchdown pass from Wallace to tight end Jamal Mosely.
The Rebels took the opening kickoff and quickly drove down to the Bulldogs’ 11-yard line, mainly on the merits of Wallace’s 51-yard pass to Ferbia Allen. Allen was left wide open running down the sideline after safety Shawn Williams dove for the interception but missed it.
But the Bulldogs’ bowed in the red zone and stopped Ole Miss for a six-yard loss on third down. The Rebels settled for a 34-yard field goal from Bryson Rose and a 3-0 lead less than three minutes into the game.
AJC’S FULL COVERAGE OF GEORGIA-OLE MISS GAME: