He’s the trigger man of a Georgia offense that has gone where no Bulldogs team has before: lighting up the scoreboard with 40 points or more in five straight games.
He’s on pace to smash the school’s single-season pass-efficiency rating, should soon own the program’s career touchdown record and has shepherded the No. 5 Bulldogs through the first month of the season like the savvy third-year starting quarterback that he is to get to this moment.
Aaron Murray arrives at a showdown Saturday with South Carolina on top of his game.
“He’s playing out of his mind,” former Georgia quarterback David Greene said. “In my opinion, I think he’s playing as good as anybody in the country. …I don’t really know what he could do to play any better than he’s played. He’s making all the right reads. He’s throwing the ball extremely accurate. Making big plays on third down. He’s a good leader. He’s just taking off to a whole new level.”
Murray can see it when he looks at the game film from Georgia’s 51-44 victory against Tennessee last Saturday and when he looks at last year’s 45-42 loss to South Carolina in Athens.
“I was watching the film and I’m just like, ‘Man, I was terrible last year,”’ Murray said. “I was just comparing myself when it comes to my footwork, when it comes to my accuracy, I just feel like I’ve developed so much more as a quarterback this offseason and this summer.”
Of course, Murray’s “terrible” turned out to be good enough to get Georgia to its first Southeastern Conference title game since 2005, win 10 straight regular-season games last year and set a school single-season record with 35 touchdowns passes.
His completion percentage has jumped from 59.1 percent last year to 68.5 percent this year, above the 65 percent target that offensive coordinator Mike Bobo set. He has 12 touchdown passes and just three interceptions.
Murray sits third in the nation in pass efficiency at 183.35 (the school-record is 155.8, set by Bobo in 1997).
But all of that will matter little to many Georgia fans if he can’t get the Bulldogs past the No. 6 Gamecocks today.
Murray is 2-7 against ranked teams in his career with the victories against No. 24 Auburn and No. 25 Georgia Tech last season.
He’s 0-6 against top-15 teams, 0-3 against top-10 opponents.
“I’m sure he’s thinking about that a little bit,” receiver Michael Bennett said this week before being lost for the season with a torn ACL. “He wants to prove himself in a really big game and I feel like he has done that.”
Bennett points to the 24-20 win against Florida last year in Jacksonville, the Bulldogs’ first win against the Gators since 2007, but those Gators went 6-6 in the regular season.
“I’m sure it’s something that he hears,” receiver Tavarres King said. “I’m not sure if it affects his play or anything. If we win, certainly that will end.”
Former Georgia quarterback Eric Zeier, who has watched each of Murray’s 32 college games as the color analyst on Bulldogs radio broadcasts, said he won’t judge Murray based on whether he can come through in Saturday’s game.
“I think Aaron is a great quarterback whether he wins this football game or not,” Zeier said. “I think what he’s been able to do while he’s been here has elevated him to one of the all-time greats at the quarterback position at the University of Georgia. You take that next step when your team wins championships and your team wins big games. I kind of laugh any time I hear, ‘He’s never won the big game.’ It’s a team that wins those big games. It’s never one player that loses it, it’s never one player that wins it. This team has progressed each and every year with him at the helm. I think it’s just a matter of time that they learn as a collective unit to win those big games.”
Murray said a win at South Carolina would be “huge,” not for him, but for the entire-team.
He had a rough game last year against the Gamecocks despite throwing four touchdowns.
Murray had an interception returned for a touchdown and a fumble returned for a touchdown. He hasn’t lost a regular season game since.
“I think I’ve been a part of some big-time games against some big-time teams in my first two years and so far this year that I don’t think I’m going to be too nervous,” he said. “I definitely think I’m a lot more mature this season and ready to go to handle the big-time games and the big-time environments.”
Don’t pigeonhole Murray as just a brainy graduate student who spends his Sunday locked in the quarterbacks room studying game film and does good works in the community away from the field.
All of those things may be true, but teammate and roommate Arthur Lynch sees a fiercely competitive side to the Tampa, Fla., native.
“He doesn’t like to lose,” said Lynch, a tight end. “You can see that watching him play FIFA (soccer) on Xbox.”
Murray, a fourth-year junior who graduated with a degree in psychology and is pursuing a doctorate in industrial and organizational psychology, played chess before the Tennessee game against center David Andrews, Lynch said.
On the field, Murray is making most of the right decisions with the pieces in a Georgia’s offense leading the SEC at 536 yards per game.
Coaches put in his hands the ability to check into plays and change protections.
“I don’t know if we’ve given a guy more responsibility than Aaron,” coach Mark Richt said. “We haven’t. (Matthew) Stafford certainly had a lot of leeway in what he did and he was a very good student of the game as well, but I think we have just added a few more things to put on the quarterback and Aaron just pays the price that I just haven’t seen many guys pay.”
The coaches’ confidence in Murray showed up last week with Georgia trailing Tennessee 30-27 with the ball at their own 35 with 37 seconds left in the first half.
Murray already had a pass tipped, intercepted and returned for a touchdown and fumbled on sack inside the Georgia 20, but led Georgia to a field goal.
“At that point with 37 seconds you might say, ‘Let’s not throw a pick and give up another turnover,’” Richt said. “I told coach Bobo, ‘Let’s go try to score.’ …I don’t know if I would have done that last year. I definitely wouldn’t have done it his freshman year. I guess that gives you an idea of the the faith I have in him as a head coach.”
Greene watched from the stands in Sanford Stadium as Murray threw for 278 yards and tossed two touchdowns, and the Bulldogs scored their most points ever against Tennessee.
Greene, who won 42 games as a starter from 2001-04, picked up on something that the average fan probably wouldn’t.
It was a 13-yard, third-down completion to Malcolm Mitchell on Georgia’s first scoring drive.
“He’s really doing a good job of making it look pretty easy,” Greene said. “It’s not.”
With a blitz coming from the right side, Murray hit Mitchell, who spun off a defender and got the first down.
“He throws a hot route on a line, hits him right in the numbers and hits him in midstride and he’s able to turn up field,” Greene said. “Little plays like that the average fan probably thought he was going there. He really wasn’t going to do it but he was hot and not only was he hot but he was able to execute the play and hit the guy midstride so that way he could turn it up field and get the first down.”
Bobo said Murray changed the protection, something Murray doubts he would have done before this season. Murray had suggested a different route concept for the play on the backside of the route during the week.
“I trust him completely and I said, ‘We’ll do it,”’ Bobo said.
Zeier, who threw for 11,153 yards from 1991-94, sees Murray “on an accelerated pace and really ahead of schedule.”
He says Murray has been more aggressive with his reads and still has protected the football.
Bobo allows Murray to change plays more at the line of scrimmage.
“It makes the offense extremely difficult to stop,” Zeier said.
Adding to it, Bobo sees Murray throwing the football with more authority.
“In the past years, you might have seen some unsureness of cutting it loose a little bit late, waiting until they’re exactly open,” Bobo said. “He’s so much more in tune with his drops and his timing. You can see he’s throwing the ball aggressively, not worried about, ‘Hey, I’m going to throw an interception, try not to make a mistake.’ He’s cutting it loose, and I think that’s why we’ve had some success.”
Lost in the build-up to this week’s top-10 matchup is that Murray needs just two touchdown passes to become the career leader for Georgia.
Greene has 72. Murray is at 71.
“He’s going to shatter it,” Greene said. “I hope he does it within five minutes of the first quarter. As a fan now, I’m cheering him on and want him to shatter every single record that’s in that media guide.”
The records can wait.
Murray and the Bulldogs will take a very important win against a top-10 Gamecocks team.
“We’ll see how he handles it Saturday,” King said. “I personally think he’ll handle it great.”