Ray Goff turned to humor when his final Georgia football team was devastated with injuries, quoted as saying: “We’ve got a pretty good team in the training room.”
Offensive coordinator Mike Bobo, who was one of those injured players in 1995, certainly could say the same thing about his depleted unit heading into Saturday’s game against No. 25 Missouri.
Playmakers Justin Scott-Wesley, Keith Marshall, Michael Bennett, Malcolm Mitchell and possibly Todd Gurley — who have combined for 11 of Georgia’s 25 touchdowns this year as well as 56 career touchdowns — won’t be in Bobo’s arsenal.
Wide receivers Scott-Wesley and Mitchell are done for the year with torn ACLs, as is Marshall, a tailback. Bennett, another receiver, is out for at least two games with a knee injury. Gurley is trying to come back from a sprained ankle.
“There ain’t no excuses on Saturday,” Bobo said. “Nobody’s going to feel sorry for us. The other team isn’t, I can promise you that.”
Georgia has put up the points the past two seasons with Bobo pulling the strings for one of the nation’s most prolific offenses. The Bulldogs are averaging 39.8 points per game this season, up two points from a year ago despite playing three top-10 teams already.
Yet with all the injuries, suddenly Georgia doesn’t seem as sure a bet to win the Southeastern Conference East division with an unbeaten Missouri in town and road games remaining against Florida and Auburn.
“Those guys sacrificed their bodies and the stuff that they were doing for a greater cause,” offensive guard Chris Burnette said. “It was for us to reach our goal and that was Pasadena [for the BCS title game]. At the end of the day, we’re still going to work hard for those guys.”
That includes Bobo. He said after Georgia’s second practice of the week that he didn’t sleep well the night before, so he came in early that morning. When he met with reporters, he warned he didn’t plan to spill the beans on players, personnel or his game plan.
“If it doesn’t work, you see all that red?” he asked pointing to a sheet he held with plays on it. “We fire it at practice and we’ll fire a lot of plays and have the right plays ready to go on Saturday.”
Bobo is trying to craft a winning game plan and not let his players think about the talent they are missing.
“It’s sort of like the leader of the wolf pack,” said receiver Rantavious Wooten, who stepped up with a career-high six catches and two touchdowns last week. “He’s not going to sit there and mention those types of things. He’s more interested in, ‘What are we going to do to get better this week? How are we going to move forward?’”
What adjustments might Bobo and Georgia make offensively?
Against Tennessee when players fell to the turf and were helped off the field, he adjusted on the fly.
“There were certain things that I knew they couldn’t run and went more basic, but we were able to call enough to win the game,” Bobo said.
“You find a way to win, and that’s what we do here at Georgia,” coach Mark Richt said. “I think all the prep work on the front end came in handy when we needed it the most.”
Now, Bobo’s had a week to prepare and come up with a game plan for a receiving corps that will lean more on players such as Rhett McGowan, Reggie Davis, Blake Tibbs and even walk-on Michael Erdman. Quarterback Aaron Murray has spent extra time trying to get his timing down with them.
“I think it will be Georgia football as usual, just with different guys,” receiver Chris Conley said.
“I don’t think there’s anything that’s happened to this team that we’re going to gameplan differently,” tight end Arthur Lynch said. “We’ve always been a pretty balanced offense and will continue to be.”
Freshmen tailbacks J.J. Green and Brendan Douglas again will be counted on heavily after rushing for 129 and 25 yards, respectively, against Tennessee.
“The adrenaline of the football game sometimes gets you through a shocking circumstance of a loss of talent,” said Gary Danielson, the CBS Sports analyst who called the Georgia wins over Tennessee and LSU. “It’s a big change in their team also considering defensively they’re not a dominant defense and in modern football, you can’t really count on your defense to say, ‘OK, we’re going to play it close to the vest this week and shut them down defensively and we’re going to play conservatively and punt the ball and try to slow down the game.’ It’s very difficult to do that because the other team gets hot.”
In 2013, when offenses are piling up points, teams can’t play away from injuries because offenses have to be able to score 35 points a game, Danielson said.
“Missouri could have a hot hand and it could be another 41-35 type game,” he said.
Danielson said he sees Georgia continuing to count on Green and Douglas and “play their normal offense. … I don’t see how they can change. They may use two tight ends more and two receivers instead of four receivers, but I think it’s the same offense but maybe a little bit more for Artie Lynch and Jay Rome. You only have a senior quarterback with Aaron’s abilities every two or three years. You just can’t play away from what he does well.”
The 5-foot-9, 183-pound Green doesn’t have the ability to take a pounding inside and have the threat to take a run all the way like Gurley and Marshall, Danielson said.
“If they bust one tackle, they can turn it into a 25, 35, 45-yard gain,” Danielson said. “I don’t think defenses are as concerned with J.J. busting a tackle. He can make somebody miss and they understand that Brenden Douglas can bust through but his busting through a tackle means he can gain four more yards. That’s good, but I think you’ll see without the breakaway runner, they’ll become more leaning on their short passing games for first downs rather than their running game for first downs.”
Bobo has been there before as a player and a coach.
He saw his coach, Goff, get fired in 1995 when Georgia’s roster was decimated and the team finished 6-6.
Hines Ward ended the season at quarterback after moving from wide receiver to tailback. Bobo, the starting quarterback, was sidelined with a right knee fracture and his backup, Brian Smith, was shelved with a separated shoulder. Tailback Robert Edwards was lost to a broken left foot.
“We were like on our sixth-team tailback, third-team fullback, third-team quarterback,” Bobo said. “That was one of those years. And I was one of them hurt, so I didn’t really experience it as a player or coach, but it was something I remember.”
Georgia got pounded by Florida 52-17 in Sanford Stadium that season when it was missing Edwards and backup tailback Larry Bowie while tailback Torin Kirtsey was slowed by an ankle injury.
“Georgia should have a little crutch on the sides of its helmets,” wrote Orlando Sentinel columnist Larry Guest.
Bobo had to adjust on the fly in 2011 when he had five different players lead the team in rushing due in part to suspensions and injuries.
Walk-on Brandon Harton was the leading rusher against Kentucky with 101 yards after Isaiah Crowell was injured early in the game. The Bulldogs played New Mexico State two weeks earlier with their top three tailbacks suspended.
Last season, Georgia lost two leading receivers, Bennett and Marlon Brown, to ACL injuries.
“It’s not the first time we’ve been through some injuries and some depleted groups,” tight ends coach John Lilly said.
Missouri coach Gary Pinkel insists Georgia can still be dangerous even with their roster impacted by injuries.
“They might not have experience, but they’re going to put good athletes on the field,” he said. “With Aaron Murray back there and having him back there and his ability to perform and make the plays that he makes and a great offensive line, I think that helps the whole adjustment as they deal with some of those injuries. I expect them to be full power and I expect them to be very good.”
Bobo, the son of a high school coach, isn’t the kind of guy to flinch when some of the top cards are taken out of the deck, Lilly said.
The Bulldogs have followed the lead of their coaches.
“Everybody’s got to step up and play harder,” inside linebacker Ramik Wilson said. “Who knew that J.J. was going to rush for 130 yards when Keith went down? Nobody knew. We’ve got great players just waiting for their opportunity to step up.”
And keep the chains moving and points coming.
“The expectation level does not move anywhere,” Wooten said. “We still have a high expectation level for this offense. We still have national championship in our vision. We still all have the goals that we set for in the preseason. All those goals, we still want to accomplish and get to, no matter what happens.”
Added Conley: “Games like this are games where we see what kind of character a team has, we see what these guys are really made of and we see who the men are on this team. … We still have to be prepared to play a great football game against a good team on Saturday.”