STILLWATER, Okla. — Two days before the game, Mark Richt wasn’t sure his quarterback would be able to play.
The day before the game, Joe Cox watched his team leave for Oklahoma without him while he battled a particularly nasty virus.
A few hours before kickoff, Cox finally took the field with few symptoms remaining.
In the end, however, Oklahoma State’s defense and a myriad of mishaps by the Bulldogs’ offense did what the flu couldn’t, effectively shutting down the Georgia offense in a 24-10 win over in which Cox completed just 15-of-30 passes for 162 yards and turned the ball over twice.
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“I feel like I let a lot of people down,” Cox said. “You want to come out and show everybody how hard you worked and show everybody how good you are. It’s not a good feeling when it doesn’t happen, especially in that first game. You want to come out with a win, and when it doesn’t happen it’s a pretty disappointing feeling.”
Oklahoma State’s Zac Robinson connected with receiver Dez Bryant for two touchdowns, and Georgia’s offense turned the ball over three times — twice setting up scores for the Cowboys.
Cox said he didn’t have a fever Saturday, and he refused to pin any of the responsibility for the loss on his health. Instead, he blamed his arm for the offensive ineptitude.
In truth, there was plenty of blame to go around. Receivers dropped passes, runners fell just short of eluding a crucial tackle, and while Richt saw flashes of potential, the details never seemed to click into place.
“I think when we look at the film, we’ll see we were very, very close,” Richt said. “We were just one block away, one better hat placement away, especially in the running game.”
The running game was among the lone highlights for Georgia, but even that proved too little to overcome the overall offensive problems.
Sophomore Richard Samuel, making the first start of his career, rushed 20 times for 87 yards, but the minor success was just enough to keep offensive coordinator Mike Bobo from adjusting his game plan in time to possibly inject some life into the offense.
“Earlier in the game I should have varied what I did and tried to open it up a little more,” Bobo said. “We wanted to establish the run and ball control and it started out well, and it just came down to execution and I didn’t do a very good job of spreading it out or spreading the field.”
Despite Cox’s health, the game started on a high note for Georgia.
Georgia’s opening drive was executed with surgical precision, led by Samuel’s strong running and capped by Cox’s four-yard pass to Michael Moore in the end zone to take a 7-0 lead.
Samuel finished the quarter with 40 yards on seven carries, and offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said the game plan appeared effective.
That philosophy dissolved in a disastrous second quarter, however, and the Bulldogs’ running game ground to a halt. Georgia’s runners carried six times for a total of two yards in the quarter, with Carlton Thomas’ fumble at the Georgia 11-yard line setting Oklahoma State up for a go-ahead field goal.
It was the first of three turnovers for Georgia — a Cox fumble and a late interception on a fourth-down pass added to the misery — and proved to be the death knell for an offense that was simply unprepared to overcome the adversity.
“The biggest problem was the turnovers,” Richt said. “We turned it over (three times) and we didn’t get any. When that happens against two teams that are pretty evenly matched, that’s going to be the difference, and it was.”
While Georgia sputtered, Oklahoma State’s offense caught the breaks it needed against a stout Bulldogs’ defense.
Quarterback Zac Robinson tossed several potential interceptions, but each floated through the hands of Georgia defenders. A personal foul call in the fourth quarter set the Cowboys’ up for a touchdown that effectively iced the game. Bryant caught just three balls in the game, but two went for touchdowns.
“He was productive and he made the plays,” defensive coordinator Willie Martinez said of Bryant. “We had our opportunities, but he made them. That’s why he’s a great player.”
The Bulldogs got just five possessions after the half, with two ending in turnovers. They crossed into Oklahoma State territory just twice and settled for a 53-yard field goal by Blair Walsh for their only points of the second half.
A potentially promising drive in the fourth quarter was stymied by several key drops by Georgia’s receivers, and two key sacks of Cox — one of which ended in a fumble — killed others.
“In the second half, we couldn’t build momentum because we didn’t execute,” Samuel said. “We had three-and-outs and weren’t able to stay on the field.”
It was a far cry from the offensive fireworks Georgia demonstrated at times last season, and more than his health or what it took for him to take the field Saturday, Cox’s performance will invariably be compared to what Georgia missed because of the players who weren’t in Stillwater.
Saturday’s loss was the first in a season opener for the Bulldogs since 1996, and Cox said it will no doubt be noted that it was also Georgia’s first game in three seasons without Matthew Stafford and Knowshon Moreno in the backfield.
“That’s what people are going to say,” Cox said. “I can’t control it.”
What he can control is what happens next week, and Cox said he remains as determined to be on the field then as he was in the hours leading up to Saturday’s defeat.
Despite Saturday’s performance, Bobo said that attitude remains Cox’s best weapon.
“We’ve got to regroup, and I think Joe’s going to be fine,” Bobo said. “Joe’s a fighter, and this team’s going to rally behind him.”