ATHENS - Hutson Mason stood on the sideline and waited, figuring his time would come. He kept waiting. Soon, it was evident the wait would be much longer than he expected.
By the time Mason finally entered Saturday’s game, there were only two minutes left. The crowd at Sanford Stadium gave the backup quarterback a nice roar, one as much of relief as recognition.
It had been a game that set up to be one the Georgia team could yank some regulars early and allow backups, most prominently Mason, to get some playing time. But two huge special teams mistakes and a rare mental lapse by Aaron Murray kept things interesting until the fourth quarter.
Georgia ended up pulling away for a 45-21 victory, and dominated the stat sheet, essentially tripling North Texas in total yardage. Now yet another major showdown awaits, this time against LSU, and Georgia came away Saturday with some lessons learned.
“The moral is special teams matter,” said senior tight end Arthur Lynch, who blamed himself for one of the critical mistakes.
“The takeaway is that we have to execute in all three phases, not only offense and defense but special teams, as well,” receiver Chris Conley said.
Two of those phases went very well.
The offense racked up 641 yards, the fourth most in program history. Murray passed for 408 yards and three touchdowns and rushed for another score. Murray and freshman Reggie Davis hooked up for a 98-yard touchdown, the longest touchdown pass in program history.
Meanwhile, Georgia’s young defense only gave up one scoring drive, while holding North Texas to 245 yards, including only 7 on the ground.
“I felt like we took a big step (Saturday) as a defense,” said freshman linebacker Leonard Floyd, who had two sacks.
Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham was very upbeat afterwards. The defense gave up at least 400 yards and at least 30 points the first two weeks to Clemson and South Carolina, and while North Texas was clearly a weaker opponent, Grantham still thought the performance was progress.
“They’re young, and it’s gonna be a rocky road,” Grantham said. “I mean, they’re young. They’ve just gotta keep playing. If we do that, we’ll be fine.”
This one would have been a bigger blowout — and much earlier, allowing Mason and others to play more — if not for Georgia’s mistakes.
First there was Murray’s interception, which negated what at minimum would have been a field goal and perhaps a touchdown. Still, everything looked as planned midway through the second quarter, when Murray’s touchdown pass to Arthur Lynch put Georgia up 21-7.
Then North Texas’ Brelan Chancellor returned the ensuing kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown. That made it 21-14, which was the score at halftime.
The second special teams disaster came early in the second half. A punt snap was high to Collin Barber, and his punt attempt was blocked and recovered by the Mean Green in the end zone. Suddenly the game was tied at 21, and Georgia was briefly on upset alert.
Lynch, who is the up-man on punts, blamed himself for switching to the wrong protection scheme. But the coaches also replaced long-snapper Nate Theus with walk-on Trent Frix, who snapped the rest of the way.
It was the latest special teams mistake for Georgia, as head coach Mark Richt listed.
“High snap, you miss a field goal (at Clemson); drop a snap, you give the defense a short field (vs. South Carolina); touchdown on the kickoff (vs. North Texas); blocked punt for touchdown (vs. North Texas),” Richt said. “That’s four plays. We’ve probably had 100 special teams plays by now, but you just hate the bad ones have been really bad. We absolutely have to clean it up, or we’re not gonna be able to win; we’re not gonna go where we wanna go if we don’t clean it up.”
Richt said the staff would examine each unit to decide if there needed to be personnel changes, especially on kickoffs and punts.
Georgia still got off upset alert and pulled away. The game was tied for 7 minutes, 6 seconds, until Murray’s 1-yard sneak capped a 53-yard scoring drive.
North Texas drove deep into Georgia territory. But on second down, Derek Thompson heaved the ball into down field, where no one but Georgia safety Tray Matthews waited. The freshman dove and caught the ball at the Georgia 5.
The Bulldogs answered with a 95-yard drive, capped by a 5-yard touchdown pass from Murray to Conley. It was a nicely placed pass by Murray over the cornerback, who did get a finger on the ball, but Conley managed to make a juggling catch.
Freshman tailback J.J. Green added a late touchdown to finish off the scoring day.
“We got ourselves into a fight,” Richt said. “It was tied, obviously, in the second half, and it could’ve gotten real ugly. But it didn’t. We continued to settle the game down by playing great defense, and continuing to move the ball and get some points. We were able to finish the game without a lot of drama. It could’ve been very dramatic.”
Now here comes No. 6 LSU, a team against which similar mistakes would lead to much more drama.
“If anything, I think we’ll be a better team for playing a four-quarter game against an opponent that was far tougher than people gave them credit for,” Lynch said.