JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Just the thought of what Georgia’s offense was able to do this season even while it lost one top playmaker after another makes offensive tackle John Theus pivot toward the 2014 season with anticipation.
AJ Reynolds/Staff, @ajreynoldsphoto
Georgia head coach Mark Richt talks with players on the field before the NCAA college football game between Georgia and Auburn in Auburn, Ala., Saturday, Nov. 16, 2013.
“I can’t wait until next year,” the sophomore said. “The fact that we put up the same numbers as last year with the injuries we had is kind of mind-boggling.”
Georgia is averaging 38.2 points per game, ahead of last year’s program-record 37.8 average.
The Bulldogs can set a new mark again by scoring 34 or more points in its Gator Bowl matchup against Nebraska on New Year’s Day.
The total offense mark from 2012 is also on pace to be broken. Georgia’s 489.8 yards per game is more than 22 ahead of last season’s average.
“That’s just a credit to those guys believing in what we’re doing no matter what’s going on around us,” Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo.
Georgia lost five frontline offensive skill position players to season-ending injuries during the regular season.
It began when star receiver Malcolm Mitchell sustained a torn ACL in the first quarter of the opener at Clemson and continued in October with tailback Keith Marshall (torn ACL) and receiver Justin Scott-Wesley (torn ACL) and in November with tight end Jay Rome (foot) and Southeastern Conference record-setting quarterback Aaron Murray (torn ACL).
Tailback Todd Gurley (sprained ankle) missed three and a half games, receivers Michael Bennett (torn meniscus) and Chris Conley (ankle) missed two and tight end Arthur Lynch (lacerated kidney) missed one.
“When it’s happening, you can’t sit there and mope,” coach Mark Richt said. “You’ve got to figure out who you’ve got and get them ready, let’s go and try to figure out a way to win because nobody feels sorry for you. But when you go back and look at it, we lost some really good players for that stretch, some of them for the season.”
The Bulldogs averaged 39.8 points per game in its first five games against a schedule that included top-10 teams Clemson, South Carolina and LSU.
Georgia was then forced to rely heavily on freshmen tailbacks J.J. Green and Brendan Douglas, players who probably would have played primarily on special teams if it wasn’t for the injuries, and on backups at receiver.
The Bulldogs dropped back-to-back games to Missouri and Vanderbilt in mid-October.
“There was definitely a lull there, the Missouri and Vanderbilt games, but you’ve got to give those guys credit,” Bobo said. “There was an adjustment period there that we had to go through. The Missouri game we pretty much stayed aggressive but we kind of turned the ball over a little bit, some timing issues. We tried to slow it down a little bit in the Vanderbilt game and didn’t have the results that way either and had to go back to the drawing board and the guys responded and answered and came back and played well the rest of the year.”
To those on the outside — such as 247Sports, which named Bobo offensive coordinator of the year — Bobo may have actually coached better this year than he did last season when the Bulldogs reached the SEC championship game and were five yards away from the national title game.
“The bottom line is winning ballgames, and 8-4 is not where we want to be,” Bobo said. “We wanted to be playing in Atlanta and have a chance to win the (SEC) championship. You do feel good about how some guys responded and answered challenges when it came when there was some adversity.”
Georgia ranks 17th nationally in total offense and 18th in scoring with an offensive staff under Bobo that has remained intact since the start of the 2010 season.
“Statistically, we’re right there,” said quarterback Hutson Mason, who replaced Murray for the regular season finale against Georgia Tech and will start the bowl game. “We’ve kept the gas pedal down. I think it’s a testament to our coaches, how they continue to produce and continue to keep the twos and threes progressing so when their time comes, they’re ready. It’s a testament to the players we have, the depth, a great job of recruiting, a great job of guys buying into the UGA program. It’s a lot of things.”
Said Bennett: “That just shows our depth. It’s amazing to see one guy go down and another one step in and we still put up record-breaking numbers.”
The latest injury to crop up during bowl practice in Jacksonville is a sprained ankle for leading receiver Conley, who returned to practice on Monday.
“He’s a tough kid,” Richt said beforehand. “We will see how he feels after going through everything .”
Conley will be a senior next season and the Bulldogs are expected to get back all of its injured players, except for Murray, whose college career is over but is in town for the bowl game. He had an autograph signing Monday night at a local mall.
Mitchell, Marshall, Scott-Wesley and Rome will add to the stable of playmakers for Mason to work with in 2014.
“Hopefully we’ll get everybody healthy and take another run at it,” Richt said. “But it was an outstanding job of everybody kind of hanging in there and continuing to shoot the bullets we had.”
Said Theus: “Just to see those guys rehabbing every day, I can’t wait until we go back next year and to see what we can do. I think it can be a scary thing and it can be a lot of fun.”