ATHENS, Ga. -- There are few examples in Aaron Murray’s tenure as Georgia’s starting quarterback of his mistakes playing a leading role in a Bulldogs loss.
One such example comes from last season’s 45-42 defeat at the hands of South Carolina, when Murray had an interception returned for a touchdown, a fumble returned for a touchdown and did not successfully complete a handoff with tailback Isaiah Crowell, resulting in a fumble that Gamecocks cornerback Stephon Gilmore returned to near the UGA goal line, setting up yet another touchdown.
While Murray’s miscues certainly were not the only ones by a Georgia player that afternoon, the quarterback still cringes as he reviews the plays he’d love to take back; plays that contributed to the Bulldogs losing an eminently winnable game.
“When you go back to watch the film, as preparation, as aid, it’s still painful to watch,” Murray said. “I don’t like to watch it too much.”
Yet putting himself through that tortuous experience is also useful, as it reminds him of the significant progress he has made since then.
“I was watching myself during my film this weekend and I’m just like, ‘Man, I was terrible last year,’ ” Murray said. “I just was comparing myself when it comes to my footwork, when it comes to my accuracy, and I just feel like I’ve developed so much more as a quarterback.”
Indeed, the Murray who will lead No. 5 Georgia (5-0, 3-0 SEC) onto the field in Saturday’s rematch with No. 6 South Carolina (5-0, 3-0) is a different player than the one who started last season against the Gamecocks.
On the day Georgia lost that game, Murray was 6-9 as the Bulldogs’ starting quarterback -- a stretch that included the first losing season in Mark Richt’s tenure as Georgia’s coach (2010) and the first 0-2 start with Richt (2011). Since last season’s South Carolina game the Bulldogs are 15-2 with Murray under center, and the junior quarterback has placed himself in the mix for some of the sport’s top postseason awards.
He leads one of the nation’s most effective offenses -- Georgia leads the SEC in total offense with 536 yards per game and is second in scoring with an average of 48.2 points per game -- and has the improved confidence one might expect from someone who has come into his own at his job.
“I think that just says a lot about who he is and the way he feels about his game and the confidence he has,” receiver Tavarres King said. “The way we’re playing now, I would think this guy has all the confidence in the world and wouldn’t listen to the noise and wouldn’t worry about anything.”
Not that much noise exists these days. Because the Bulldogs’ offense has performed so effectively thus far, Murray knows that even when something goes wrong -- as happened last Saturday against Tennessee, when he had an interception returned for a touchdown and also lost a fumble that resulted in another Volunteers score -- they have more than enough firepower to overcome their mistakes.
“Hey, there’s always another play,” Murray said. “I might fumble a ball, throw a pick, but come back. Let’s get back to work and make up for that mistake and put some points on the board.”
Oddly enough, the Bulldogs actually look at that disappointing day as the launching point for last season’s 10-game winning streak and the 5-0 run they’re on now.
Offensive coordinator Mike Bobo points to the second half of the South Carolina game as the time when their new no-huddle offense began to click. Murray threw three of his four touchdown passes and piled up 195 passing yards after halftime, showing the first signs of the offensive productivity that has become commonplace in Georgia’s recent games.
“As soon as we lost that game, we were getting our postgame meal down here [at Butts-Mehre Heritage Hall] and Coach Bobo was in there and me and Aaron looked at him and said, ‘We’re going to win 10 straight’ and we wound up winning 10 straight,” said tight end Arthur Lynch, Murray’s roommate for the last three years. “I imagine Aaron put a lot on himself, but in no way did we win or lose that game because of him.”
Murray’s increased experience is not the only factor in him becoming a more stable quarterback since that letdown against the Gamecocks. Because of his obsessive preparation, Bobo gives Murray the freedom to change plays and protections at the line of scrimmage as he scans the opposing defense.
His relentless work ethic -- Lynch calls him a “football gym rat” -- is to the point that his roommates sometimes joke about barely seeing him.
“There was a game last year -- I’ve been real close with him for a while -- and we all got home and Arthur came over to our house and it was like, ‘Well where is Aaron?’ and he said, ‘He’s over there watching the game,’ ” said snapper Ty Frix, who rooms with Lynch and Murray this year along with linebacker Christian Robinson and fullback Dustin Royston.
“He’ll get back, get off the plane, go straight to Butts-Mehre, rewatch the entire game and then turn around and watch all the games for the team for the next week before Monday even hits. He’s a very, very dedicated person.”
It certainly seems to be paying off, as Murray ranks third nationally with a 183.47 passer rating and is third in the SEC with 275.6 passing yards per game for a program that is 5-0 for the first time since 2006.
And it’s possible that the South Carolina experience even helped Murray in some ways instead of damaging his confidence. When the Bulldogs imploded in the second quarter last week against Tennessee, with turnovers and other mistakes helping the Volunteers launch a 20-0 run, Georgia’s offense clicked right back into gear in the third quarter.
The difference is that now, Murray and his teammates are better prepared to keep potentially confidence-shaking mistakes from costing them victories.
“We didn’t just hide in a shell. I don’t think we did last year either for South Carolina," Murray said. "I definitely think after each turnover, we came back offensively and scored and scored. Obviously we didn’t win the game, but I think our guys fought. But I think [against Tennessee], we not only fought, but we finished.
“That’s something we always talk about is finishing the drill and that’s the mentality we’re going to need to have this week because there are going to be some times when we’re going to face some adversity and something bad’s going to happen and we have to come back from that and make a play.”