Special To The Times
ORLANDO, Fla. —
Aaron Murray hasn’t yet decided if he’ll leave Georgia early to enter the NFL Draft as an underclassman. But regardless of whether or not Tuesday’s Capital One Bowl was the Tampa native’s final one as a Bulldog, Murray ensured that his performance was one to remember.
Murray helped rally Georgia back from an eight-point third quarter deficit to throw for 427 yards and five touchdowns in a 45-31 victory over Nebraska as the Bulldogs and Cornhuskers showed off their respective offensive prowess before the Georgia (12-2) defense shut down Nebraska (10-4) for most of the second half to seal the win.
The win snaps a two-year bowl losing streak for Georgia, which had won seven-of-eight bowl games under head coach Mark Richt prior to that.
“It’s more fun to win than lose, I can tell you that,” Richt said. “And we lost our last two bowl games and were getting tired of that. We worked so hard to continue to get better from that 6-7 year (in 2009).”
Murray’s day got off to a rough start with a pair of first-quarter interceptions, one of which was returned 24 yards by Will Compton for a touchdown. After, that, however, he settled in, ending with 18-of-33 passes completed.
“He had a couple of things go not exactly the way he wanted them to go, had a couple of picks early and just hung in there, very resilient and finished,” Richt said.
The victory tosses a proverbial post-season monkey off of Murray’s back, who entered Monday winless in two bowl games as well as two SEC championship games as a Bulldog.
“I definitely very excited to get a win. Everyone’s been asking me, ‘how do you feel heading into the off-season compared to winning or losing?’ “ Murray said. “And I’m like ‘I don’t know how it feels to head into an off-season with a win,’ so it’s a great feeling to get a win. It’s great for these seniors who have meant so much to this team.”
On the ground, Georgia didn’t put up gaudy numbers, but still put forth enough of a solid effort to keep Nebraska’s defense honest. Freshman Todd Gurley racked up 125 yards to the 36 of Keith Marshall. Gurley’s 24-yard touchdown off of a direct snap gave Georgia a 23-14 second-quarter lead, and Marshall hauled in a pass along the sideline in the third quarter, staying in bounds to score for what was the go-ahead score with 14:52 to play in hauling in a 24-yard touchdown pass from Murray.
“We always want to be a balanced offense,” Murray said. “And Todd and Keith have just been unbelievable this whole season with the way they have been running and their big play and just the plays they have been able to make.”
Of Murray’s passing touchdowns, three of them were of at least 49 yards more, Chris Conley hauling in two of them. The latter of the two put the exclamation point on Murray’s day. With the Bulldogs backed up inside their 15-yard line on third down in the early stages of the fourth quarter, the Bulldogs broke the game open for their biggest lead of the day as Murray found Conley on a perfectly executed slant pattern across the middle. From there, Conley showed off his speed, easily out-racing Nebraska defenders all the way to the end zone for the score and 45-31 lead.
“They were pretty much bringing a full-house blitz. We ran a little jailbreak screen, so it was either going to be a huge play or a bust,” Murray said.
Conley and Justin Scott-Wesley were called into action in part due to Valdosta High product Malcolm Mitchell leaving the game in the first quarter with a concussion, leaving Georgia without its third starting receiver it began the season with. Michael Bennett and Marlon Brown suffered season-ending injuries earlier in the season.
“I’m just so proud of those receivers. They’ve kept working all year, even when their number wasn’t getting called,” Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said.
Conley caught two passes for 136 yards with Scott-Wesley having three receptions for 67 yards. Georgia led 23-14 in the first half before the offenses of both the Bulldogs and Cornhuskers gashed both defenses.
The two teams combined for 1,002 yards of offense. Murray burned Nebraska with multiple deep passes while the Cornhuskers kept Georgia off-balance defensively with the scrambling ability of quarterback Taylor Martinez and hard running of Rex Burkhead, who gained 140 yards.
Nebraska took a 31-23 second-half lead when it came out of halftime with a 13-play, 75-yard drive to extend its lead on a two-yard touchdown run by Burkhead. After that, however, Georgia wrested control of the game from Nebraska on both sides of the ball. At halftime, Nebraska had mounted 246 yards of offense and 16 offensive points. Following its third-quarter scoring drive, it gained just 122 yards and drove inside the Georgia 40-yard line just once.
“Our offense came out and did were able to open some things up and that allowed us to do some things on defense,” Georgia linebacker Jarvis Jones said.
Georgia’s defense didn’t only halt Nebraska drives with third-down stops. It did so by getting takeaways. After Georgia tied the score at 31-31 with a 49-yard pass from Murray to Chris Conley followed by a successful two-point conversion play, Nebraska drove as far as the Georgia 39, where Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah fumbled and Alec Ogletree recovered the fumble which he also forced.
Then, with Georgia leading 45-31 in the fourth quarter, the Bulldogs snuffed out the Cornhuskers chances of a comeback with Martinez’s deep pass was picked off by Damian Swann, his second interception of the game.
“In the fourth quarter, when we had to stop them, we stopped them,” Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said.
Another Bulldog underclassmen who’ll decide in the coming weeks on whether or not to turn pro early, Jarvis Jones, registered two sacks, giving him 14.5 on the season to break the single-season record previously held by David Pollack.