ATHENS -- In the end, after all the particulars had been interviewed, the slight seemed to be manufactured. The visiting team very well may not have intended to stomp on the Georgia logo at midfield, causing a ruckus minutes before kickoff Saturday.
No matter. The Georgia football players used it a motivation anyway, and their head coach didn’t tamp down their enthusiasm.
“There were chairs being thrown,” Georgia junior Christian Robinson said. “I had never seen this locker room like that before a game.”
The result was a quick start that proved enough to overcome a lackluster second half in a 24-10 win over Mississippi State. It may not have been a complete victory, and the motivation may have been a bit flawed, but the outlook is improving for Georgia (3-2 overall, 2-1SEC).
“It’s good to be above .500. It’s been awhile since we’ve been there,” head coach Mark Richt said.
In fact, it’s the first time since Georgia opened last season with a win over Louisiana-Lafayette. And it’s the first time Georgia has had a winning conference record since late in the 2009 season.
It was a loss last at Mississippi State that was one of the low points for Georgia, which players spoke of often in the lead-up to the rematch. Then another source of motivation emerged before kickoff.
As the teams finished warmups, Georgia players perceived that the visitors had congregated at midfield. The idea took hold that Mississippi State was stomping on their logo. Before long the mass of players had met, officials were separating players and the emotions continued as the teams entered the locker room.
“There were people fighting out there,” Robinson said. “And then (MSU quarterback Chris) Relf is pointing his finger in my face. I said, ‘Y’all, we’re gonna come back out, and they’re not gonna be doing what they think they’re going to do. They have no idea what we’re about to do.’ ”
Richt said it reminded him of a Florida State-Florida game in the 1990s, when something always seemed to happen in pregame between the heated rivals. But then Richt spoke with an official who had been in the middle of it.
“After hearing what happened, I don’t think Mississippi State had any intention of doing anything like that,” Richt said.
Not that he was going to douse the gift of added incentive.
“The end result for us was our guys, their blood got hot,” Richt said. “They got their blood running, and I think it helped us start fast.”
Sure enough, Georgia scored on its first drive and had a 21-3 lead entering halftime. Tailback Isaiah Crowell had 90 rushing yards. The home team dominated in the first half, and looked ready to pummel a team that entered the game with the same record.
But much like the previous week -- when Georgia couldn’t put away Mississippi -- the second half saw a regression in the Bulldogs’ play.
Richt acknowledged that “there’s something missing in the second half.”
But he said it wasn’t due to going soft in the play-calling.
“Our fan base and anybody who watches the game knows in the first half we look pretty exciting. We look like an exciting football team, offense, defense and special teams,” Richt said. “And then the second half, we couldn’t separate to the point to where we were really comfortable, because we just couldn’t get it done offensively.”
Quarterback Aaron Murray’s performance was also a bit rough. The sophomore was picked off three times, one of which was returned for Mississippi State’s only touchdown. He has now been intercepted six times in five games this year, compared to eight picks all of his freshman year.
“Just a couple passes that I wasn’t as accurate as I needed to be,” Murray said. “You’re playing a great SEC team, and you gotta be pinpoint on every pass. You throw any pass wrong, they’ve got athletes who are gonna make plays on it.”
But there remained salvation for Georgia -- its defense, which limited Mississippi State to a field goal drive and notched five sacks.
Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham made stopping Relf from running the ball a big focus, and his players came through. Relf, who rushed for more than 100 yards in Mississippi State’s win over Georgia last year, was held to 31 this year, and he only threw for 157 yards while being picked off twice.
“You’ve just gotta take the things they do away,” Grantham said. “He’s obviously a good runner. We just had to find ways to not let him do it, and force him to beat you left-handed.”
The next opponent may have an even better quarterback. Tennessee’s Tyler Bray has racked up better stats than Murray, the preseason SEC first-team quarterback. The Volunteers will be 3-1 overall when they host the Bulldogs on Saturday night.
The sense among Georgia players after beating Mississippi State was that they were on the right path but still had a ways to go.
“We know we have so much more to improve on,” tight end Orson Charles said. “We have to finish in the red zone; we have to finish in the second half. In order to beat the great teams down the road, we have to do those things. We have to do it now before we get to that game.”