It’s crazy how little a million dollars will buy these days.
Georgia Bulldogs running back Keith Marshall (4) breaks a tackle during a run to the one yard line during the NCAA college football game between the Georgia Bulldogs and the Florida Atlantic Owls at Sanford Stadium in Athens, Ga., Saturday, Sept. 15, 2012. (AJ Reynolds/Staff)
For that kind of cash, it may have been courteous for Florida Atlantic to roll over at the opening kickoff on Saturday at Sanford Stadium. Instead, the Owls gave Georgia its money’s worth, if only for a half, spending much of the first two quarters hanging with the Bulldogs before Georgia pulled away for a 56-20 victory.
It looked like someone had been the watching film of Louisiana-Monroe’s recent overtime upset of then-No. 8 Arkansas, and it wasn’t Georgia. The Owls – Sun Belt Conference kin of the Louisiana-Monroe – came to Athens with grandiose visions, and for a while, looked ready to capitalize on a flat-footed start by the Georgia defense.
When Georgia coach Mark Richt complimented the Owls after the game, it was more than just a pat on the back for a team the coach acknowledged did a good job making the Bulldogs a bit uncomfortable early in the game.
“I think that Coach (Carl) Pelini did a very good job of getting his team ready to play,” Richt said. “It was very obvious, especially offensively. They had an outstanding plan, and I was very impressed. They blocked well running the ball, they blocked well in their pass pro. The quarterback was deadly accurate. The ball was on he money, and guys were catching the ball.”
By the time a live look-in on the big screen at Sanford Stadium showed another Sun Belt Special – Western Kentucky defeated Kentucky 32-31 in overtime – the Owls were too deep to gain much inspiration, trailing Georgia 56-14 early in the fourth quarter.
But like all of Georgia’s opponents this season, the Owls made a game of it for the first half, a habit the Bulldogs might want to break before delving too deep into Southeastern Conference play.
“I don’t know (what happened in the first half), and that’s something we’ve got to figure out,” defensive lineman John Jenkins said. “We can’t allow that to happen for the rest of the season.”
FAU took advantage of a Georgia turnover late in the first quarter and, four plays later, scored on a 43-yard touchdown pass from Graham Wilbert to Damian Fortner to tie the game at 7. Georgia then marched 94 yards in five plays for a touchdown, and the Owls again had an answer, this time dissecting the Bulldogs’ defense for an 87-yard drive that saw FAU complete impressive plays – passes of 32 and 48 yards.
With every big FAU play, Georgia defenders exchanged disbelieving glances with one another, shrugging as they tried to assign a reason, or maybe blame, for the Owls’ unlikely success.
“I think it was more that we weren’t focused mentally a little bit, and some of us were just off key and weren’t running the right coverage,” said freshman linebacker Jordan Jenkins, who started for the first time as All-American Jarvis Jones nursed a groin injury. “I feel like we just messed around a little bit. In the second half, I definitely feel like we fine-tuned everything and played like we should have.”
Like Jenkins said, things eventually went back to normal. Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray continued shredding the Owls in the second half en route to a career-best day with 342 yards and two touchdowns passing and another pair of scores running the ball in from the 1-yard line. The Bulldogs’ defense settled in, finishing having forced eight punts and allowing FAU to 318 yards of offense and a mere six points in the second half.
Even when Aaron Murray threw a second-half interception in the end zone, linebacker Herrera needed one play to intercept a pass and barrel down the sideline for a touchdown. That’s when Georgia went back to looking like the kind of team that has to pay the FAU’s of the world to pay them a visit.
Ultimately, Georgia found its way to the blowout it shelled out for. The Bulldogs’ spot in the poll is probably safe for another week, and Georgia will face Vanderbilt next week at 3-0 for the first time since 2008.
And when it turned into mop-up duty, Georgia got the laboratory it wanted. Quarterbacks Christian LeMay and Parker Welch each had his impact of the season, even if neither was without flaw. The Bulldogs’ defense tested its depth and its youth with linebacker Jordan Jenkins getting his first start in place of All-American Jarvis Jones. Safety Sanders Commings and linebacker Chase Vasser were able to ease back into play.
And if nothing else, the Bulldogs learned a valuable lesson, particularly in the first half.
When you cut that check, you still only get what you play for.