ATHENS, Ga. – Aaron Murray knelt down on the final play in No. 9 Georgia's 44-41 win over LSU and then turned and heaved the ball high into the air in celebration.
Georgia's quarterback had just completed another brilliant performance that allowed the Bulldogs to escape the most grueling opening month in school history – with games against three top-10 opponents, and the Bulldogs winning two – and helped his team remain a legitimate national championship contender.
“That was awesome,” said Murray, who passed for 298 yards, four touchdowns and one interception and hit Justin Scott-Wesley with the game-winning 25-yard touchdown pass with 1:47 to play. “I'm so proud of the entire team and how we came out today. It's been a tough start to the season, playing three top-10 teams in our first four games, and I am so proud of the way our team has gotten through it.”
That pride was evident throughout Sanford Stadium in the electric celebration that followed Georgia's fourth-down stop when a Zach Mettenberger pass fell incomplete at midfield. Mettenberger and LSU's offense produced in such situations over and over throughout the game, but the Bulldogs forced four consecutive incompletions to close out one of their biggest home wins in years.
“We knew if we stopped them from converting on third down, we would win the game,” said Georgia defensive lineman Chris Mayes, who recorded his first career start and first career sack against LSU. “At the end, we finally did that on third and fourth down and it got us a big team win.”
Georgia coach Mark Richt's uncharacteristically emotional postgame celebration showed that he was as caught up in the moment as his players and fans. Richt walked from corner to corner of the field, repeatedly raising his arms in victory with the home fans cheering enthusiastically each time.
“You can't ask for anything better than what happened today,” Richt said. “It just showed how great the University of Georgia can be.”
And the inside of the locker room looked like a disaster area, covered in water and other debris – the remnants of a raucous postgame celebration that Georgia might typically reserve for a win that clinched a division championship. Once they finished celebrating in the locker room, the Bulldogs took it back to the field, making a victory lap around the hedges that line the playing surface to slap hands with the thousands of fans who were still celebrating the win.
“We were in here and [offensive coordinator Mike] Bobo said, 'The fans are still here. You need to go thank them.' It was a great idea, so we went back out and sure enough, they were there,” said receiver Michael Bennett, who caught a pair of touchdown passes.
Georgia's offense once again saved the day despite an outstanding performance by Mettenberger, making his return to the school where he started his college career. LSU's quarterback – whom Richt dismissed from the team in 2010 following an arrest – showed no signs of being adversely affected by the emotions of the day. He went 23-for-37 for 372 yards and three touchdowns and kept LSU's offense afloat when the Tigers' vaunted running game produced only 77 yards on 36 carries.
Mettenberger gashed the Bulldogs' secondary repeatedly on third downs – LSU went 10-for-15 – and converted a 25-yard bullet to Odell Beckham Jr. on third-and-22 at his own 13. That kept alive LSU's go-ahead touchdown drive that ended with Jeremy Hill's 8-yard scoring run that gave the Tigers a 41-37 advantage – their first lead since the first quarter – with 4:14 to play.
That was more than enough time for Georgia's explosive offense to answer, however, as it has almost every time its young defense has put the Bulldogs in a tight spot. That was certainly the case here, but Murray calmly completed all four of his passes on Georgia's ensuing drive, hitting a wide-open Scott-Wesley on the final throw to regain the lead when a less veteran team might have lost its composure in the pressure of the moment.
“I think we're about as composed a group as you can find, from the freshmen to the sophomores to the guys who have been here 12 years like Aaron and I,” said Georgia senior tight end Arthur Lynch, who caught two passes on the final touchdown drive. “We've got guys who aren't afraid of a challenge, which has been a good thing. Especially in this league, I think guys can be a little intimidated. But for us to handle that situation the way we did I think is pretty impressive.”
It was far from a perfect first month for Georgia, particularly on defense. LSU gained 449 yards against a defense that came in allowing 388.7 per game (11th in the SEC). Richt reminded reporters after the game that his team is still “very vulnerable to getting whipped if we don't just put it all together,” starting with next week's venture to Tennessee.
But as long as Murray and Georgia's offense function as capably as they did on Saturday, the Bulldogs are going to be awfully difficult to beat. By surviving yet another close call against a top-10 opponent, all of Georgia's preseason goals remain within reach despite the grueling nature of its opening schedule.
“We know if we just continue to win games and continue to put up points, we're going to be in the national championship, bottom line,” Bennett said. “We've just got to keep doing that.”