AUBURN, Ala. – For the first time since he can remember Aaron Murray’s parents weren’t at his football game. His father, Denny, recently underwent radiation treatment in Tampa and was unable to make the trip and his mother Stephanie remained back home at her husband’s side.
That it was Murray’s 22nd birthday made it a bigger bummer. But Mom and Dad sent their son his favorite treat — chocolate-covered strawberries for this birthday — and he shared them with his teammates at the team hotel Friday night.
“When I got to the hotel last night there were balloons everywhere and chocolate-covered strawberries decorated like footballs,” Murray say. “They were great.”
With his parents watching on television Saturday night, Murray continued to share treats with his buddies. He threw touchdowns to three receivers and led Georgia to a resounding 38-0 win over Auburn.
The victory clinched Georgia’s berth in the Dec. 1 SEC Championship Game at the Georgia Dome.
“It was a great celebration,” said Murray, who had passed for 208 yards by the time he left the game late in the third quarter. “I was pumped up, everybody was pumped up. The locker room was going crazy, water was being thrown everywhere, Coach jumping up and down. It’s huge to win the East back-to-back years. That’s not an easy thing to do.”
Murray made it seem easy on Saturday. He completed his first 10 passes of the game and had 186 yards by halftime. Coaches and teammates said he was near-perfect in terms of his calls and checks at the line of scrimmage.
“Aaron’s a play-maker; he’s a true quarterback,” said sophomore flanker Chris Conley, who hauled in Murray’s first TD of the night from six yards out. “He can go out there and make plays. He can make audibles. He sees the defense and makes the right checks. I feel like he was in his element tonight. He was able to make the right checks and get us in the right plays and our offense really reflected that.”
Murray took a step toward legendary status early in the second quarter. He was hit hard on a blitz by safety Cassanova McKinzy and had to leave the game.
But Murray stayed on the sideline for just one play. Walkon quarterback Parker Welch came in and handed off the ball in Murray’s absence. But Murray came trotting back on the next down – third-and-eight at the Auburn 18 – rolled right under pressure and hit Tavarres King with a strike just inside the boundary on the right side of the end zone.
Murray downplayed the whole episode.
“Oh, just got the breath knocked out of me there for a minute,” said Murray, who now has 83 TD passes at Georgia. “I probably could have played the next play, but I thought it might be smart if I just took a play off real quick and make sure I was ready to go and not make any stupid mistakes. The next play I got in was a touchdown so I guess a play off did me good.”
Murray has torched the Tigers the last two seasons. Including last season’s four-touchdown effort in a 45-7 win, he’s 32-of-42 for 432 yards and 7 touchdowns with no interceptions.
“Guess I still have a little grudge from that last time we were here,” Murray joked.
Meanwhile, Murray said his father is going to be fine. “My dad had some radiation and he can’t be around people right now for three or four days, so he had to stay back. Sad. First game he’s missed since I was like 8 years old. He wanted to be here, I wanted him to be here, but it’s the best thing for him.”
Saturday’s victory helps coaches’ bottom line
Georgia’s victory Saturday night will cost the UGA athletic department nearly $500,000. But it’s money with which athletic director Greg McGarity was more than happy to part.
Because of a new bonus structure implemented by McGarity, winning the SEC East title was worth twice to coach Mark Richt than it did under his previous contract. Richt’s new five-year deal, finalized late this summer, doubled his performance bonus for reaching the SEC Championship game from $75,000 to $150,000 and for winning it from $100,000 to $200,000.
McGarity orchestrated similar increases for Georgia’s assistant coaches. First he got rid of the yearly $10,000 longevity bonuses and rolled that money into their yearly base salaries. Winning the East now results in a 15 percent bonus on that amount. Winning the championship outright increases the bonus to 20 percent.
The lowest salary among Georgia’s assistants is $210,000, which is shared by five assistants. For them that’s a bonus check of $31,500. It will mean $45,000 for offensive coordinator Mike Bobo, $41,250 for assistant head coach Rodney Garner and $39,000 for linebackers coach Kirk Olivadotti.
Like Richt, defensive coordinator Todd Grantham has a specific performance clause in this contract. Grantham earns $50,000 and $75,000, respectively, for playing in or winning the SEC title game.
Added together, Georgia’s victory will cost UGA $482,750 in bonuses.
Offensive lineup shuffled
Georgia’s had a different starting lineup for the offensive line for the first time all season on Saturday. Because of the left shoulder injury suffered by Chris Burnette in the first half against Ole Miss last week, the junior from LaGrange was unable to make the trip to Auburn. That resulted in the first career start for Mark Beard at left tackle. The regular starter at that position, Kenarious Gates, moved inside to play left guard and regular left guard Dallas Lee switched over to Burnette’s position at right guard.
It made for a special night for Beard, who hails from Adamsville, Ala., which is about 120 miles northwest of Auburn, just outside Birmingham.
Conley, a 6-3, 205-pound sophomore from Paulding County, got his first career start on Saturday. Conley started at slot receiver in place of Marlon Brown, who underwent surgery this week after suffering a torn anterior cruciate ligament in the second half against Ole Miss.
Conley had a good night. He caught four passes for 32 yards, including a 6-yard TD to open the night’s scoring.
“It was great on a couple of different levels,” Conley said of the early TD grab. “It was great just to get started, to get warmed up in the game and everything like that. But it was also great to know my coaches had enough confidence in me to make those calls and allow me to go make those plays. So I’m really blessed and it felt great.”
Wearing No. 15
Senior Tavarres King said he approached coach Mark Richt about wearing Brown’s No. 15 jersey on Monday of these past week. The two are close friends and King didn’t want waste any time making his request.
King intended to honor Michael Bennett the same way when he went down with a knee injury the first week of October. But King said his hesitation cost him the chance to wear No. 82 in that instance.
“I asked them too late,” he said. “You know they have to strip the name off the back and put yours on and a bunch of other stuff. Waited too long.”
Feelings for friends
Two members of Richt’s original staff at Georgia were coaching on the Auburn sideline Saturday in defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder and secondary coach Willie Martinez. Richt was asked if he sympathized with them in light of the Bulldogs’ offensive domination.
“You’ve got to take your feelings and personalities out of it,” Richt said. “I’m a huge fan of Brian VanGorder and Willie Martinez. I love both those men and their families. They started the journey to Georgia with me and that was a special staff, a bunch of great guys. Football, you just never know what a week is going to bring or a season is going to bring. I know they’re great coaches, I can tell you that.”
They said it
“Both of them are sweet with their own tastes. Being able to get a shutout is a great thing from a personal standpoint for the defense. But we came out here tonight to get our ticket to the SEC championship and we were able to do that.”
– Linebacker Alec Ogletree on shutting out Auburn versus winning the SEC East
Etc. . . .
Georgia’s shutout Saturday was its first against Auburn since 1978 when it won 28-0 at Jordan-Hare. It was the Bulldogs’ seventh shutout under Richt and first since blanking Vanderbilt 43-0 in 2010. . . . Georgia is now 12-8-1 in title-clinching games against the Tigers. . . . Ogletree led the Bulldogs with 10 tackles and had a sack. . . . “Gurshall” combined for more than 200 yards rushing again. Todd Gurley had 116 yards on 11 carries, Keith Marshall had 105 on 8 and they both scored touchdowns.