ATHENS -- Aaron Murray has been the starting quarterback for four years, and he was on the Georgia roster for one year prior to that. In that time, he had never done what he did this week.
Every Monday of the season, the Bulldogs hold a team-wide meeting. Head coach Mark Richt speaks to his players about the upcoming week and offers a pep talk. This time, after reaching the nadir of the season, Murray got up and spoke.
It was not a scorched-earth speech. Far from it. It was pure Murray: Positive, constructive, hopeful.
A day later, Murray offered the short version to the media.
“The basic thing is doing your job,” Murray said. “And use this week and next week to really hone in on your craft, whatever it is. Whether it’s throwing the ball, running the ball, tackling, catching, blocking, snapping, kicking. Just focus in.
“It just seems like this year, everywhere -- offense, defense, special teams -- we have these mental breakdowns where we just, I don’t know if it’s take a play off or just don’t completely focus on what we need to do. And that’s what killing us this year.”
Georgia enters its bye week with a 4-3 record, reeling from two straight losses in which it was favored. It lost Saturday at Vanderbilt, its first loss there in 22 years.
Murray has spoken to the team before, but usually on Friday nights before games, when multiple players usually get the floor. This was the first time Murray had done so at the start of the week.
“I just wanted to get in front of the guys and let them know there’s still a lot to fight for,” he said. “It’s a long season. And I think we can be proud if we go out there and finish the season strong, go 9-3. Who knows what might happen with Missouri, they still have five very tough conference games to play, who knows what happens. But if not, we’re 9-3 playing in a great bowl game, and 10-3, I think that’d be a great year.
“But we’ve gotta take it game-by-game, stay focused, and use these next two weeks to really hone in our craft and understand what we need to do individually to get better as a team.”
Much of the team’s problems can be tied to one issue: injuries. The team’s two top tailbacks and three of its top four receivers, as well as the starting free safety, have been out the past three games. Several are out for the season.
But star tailback Todd Gurley returned to practice Tuesday, and receiver Michael Bennett and safety Tray Matthews are also on track for the next game, against arch-rival Florida on Nov. 2.
Still, losses bring questions, so the team is enduring those now.
It’s not so much on offense, where the injuries are a real and legitimate excuse. The special teams, however, remain a mess, its mistakes leading to 21 of Vanderbilt’s points Saturday. Richt has not indicated any massive changes, simply a continued focus in practice.
“It comes down to people executing. People talk about the special teams coach. I think our schemes are right, we’re doing what we need to do,” said tight end Arthur Lynch, a member of the punt unit. “It’s not the scheme, it’s not the coaches, it’s about everyone putting out an effort that’s special.”
The much-maligned defense, meanwhile, is coming off perhaps its best performance of the year. Vanderbilt did move the ball in the fourth quarter and score with its backup quarterback, but overall Georgia was better on third downs and yielded the second-least amount of yards this season.
Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham’s schemes and signals had appeared to confuse his young players most of this season. But at Vanderbilt the gameplan was simplified, according to one player, and the results showed.
“We didn’t have that complicated a game plan. A lot of guys understood it,” sophomore linebacker Jordan Jenkins said. “That definitely was one of the better defensive games we played.”
For all the problems, there is still some levity around the team, too. Murray said he has kidded Gurley about who leads the team in a certain category.
“I’m leading the team in rushing touchdowns right now,” Murray said. “I have five, and he has four, so I give him crap about that. He says he hasn’t been there (the past three games). I said, ‘Well, you still have more rushes than me and I still have more touchdowns.’ ”
The mood after the Saturday loss was down, according to junior linebacker Amarlo Herrera. But the next few days saw people’s spirits lifted, aided in part by Murray’s speech.
“You can’t stay down, because we’ve got better things ahead, and we’ve got a lot to fight for,” Herrera said. “We’re just trying to get our juice back after we won those two big games.”