ATHENS — For a few hours Saturday afternoon, all that was wrong with the Georgia football team last year seemed solved.
The quarterback was stellar. The defense was flying around and, with the exception of one play, close to perfect. And with everyone else performing just as well, Georgia rolled past overmatched Louisiana-Lafayette 55-7.
It was enough to forget, for at least three hours, that the one thing Georgia thought it could depend on had suddenly become a very sticky situation.
A.J. Green, the team’s best player and an All-America candidate, was forced to sit out the game in a decision announced two hours before kickoff. The junior receiver has been linked to an NCAA probe of agents, but for the past month Green and head coach Mark Richt had expressed confidence that Green wouldn’t miss a game.
The school released a statement saying that Green was being held out “pursuant to UGA Athletic Association policy and pending a ruling from the NCAA clarifying his status.”
After the game, Richt declined to elaborate.
“I’m just gonna do what I was told,” Richt said. “And that was just don’t make any comment on the A.J. Green situation. So in any way shape or form, I’m just gonna say no comment.”
Georgia president Michael Adams said before Saturday’s game that he expects a ruling on the A.J. Green situation “pretty soon” and that he doesn’t have any “extraordinary concern” about it.
Adams also declined to answer whether the situation with Green was tied to an issue separate from the agent probe that involved players at Alabama, North Carolina and South Carolina.
“Our lawyers are handling it. And that’s appropriate,” Adams said. “And I’d be surprised if we didn’t hear something pretty soon.”
But asked if he thought the situation was serious, Adams wasn’t sure.
“What I might think and what the NCAA might think might be two different things,” Adams said. “I don’t think it does us any good to speculate until it’s over with.”
Before the game, Green hung out in a jersey and shorts with three other key players who were suspended for the game: Washaun Ealey (the team’s leading rusher last year), Tavarres King (the projected No. 2 receiver) and Alec Ogletree (a safety and the team’s top true freshman).
Those three are all expected back this week, according to Richt.
But without any of the four, Georgia still managed a wire-to-wire rout.
The defense, the team’s albatross the past few seasons, nearly had a shutout. Lousiana-Lafayette only had five first downs, one by penalty, and 128 yards. Sixty of those came on one play, a touchdown pass late in the first half that was perhaps the defense’s only breakdown. There were three sacks and three interceptions, one returned for a touchdown by Jakar Hamilton — also a new player .
It was a strong debut for the new 3-4 defense and first-year defensive coordinator Todd Grantham.
“I thought we were very solid in the first half,” Grantham said. “And I thought after we came out of the locker room, we were able to keep them backed up.”
The play of Aaron Murray was almost as good. Making his first college start, the redshirt freshman quarterback accounted had three touchdown passes and ran for another — a 22-yard run as the first half expired.
Even without Green, King and Ealey, the offense excelled. Tailbacks Carlton Thomas and Caleb King combined for 112 rushing yards on 23 carries. Senior receiver Kris Durham had 83 receiving yards on five catches. Ten different Bulldogs caught a pass.
“It just really came over me that we have worked hard, the whole team has for this day,” Murray said. “We’ve been pushing each other for eight months, and it’s finally here. It was just kind of crazy.”
It was the third-most points scored during Richt’s 10 years at Georgia.
Sophomore Branden Smith started on offense, defense and special teams, the first Bulldogs player to do so since Champ Bailey in 1998. Smith caught Murray’s first pass and also had two long punt returns.
Even the special teams were outstanding. Blair Walsh made field goals of 52 and 47 yards and punter Drew Butler had a 59-yarder and three placed inside the 20.
In short, everything went swimmingly — except for the star player sitting on the sidelines with his status unresolved.
And this week Georgia must visit South Carolina, in what could be a critical game in the SEC East.
“I’d rather they take their time and get it right,” Adams said of the NCAA. “I think to the extent that you want all your players cleared, there are always concerns. But I don’t right now have any extraordinary concern. I just think we need to let the process work.”