In the hum of a victorious Georgia locker room — after Georgia and LSU combined for 85 points and 943 yards of total offense in your typical new-age SEC shootout, after a seesaw battle came down to Georgia ball, 4:14 left and 75 yards to go, and then after quarterback Aaron Murray marched the Bulldogs down the field for what would be the winning drive in Georgia’s 44-41 victory — the Georgia players sat in folding chairs and spoke about Murray, the quarterback no one thought could win the big game.
Justin Scott-Wesley, who caught Murray’s picture-perfect, 25-yard game-winning touchdown pass, said their quarterback was as “cool as a cucumber” in the huddle when the game — and, really, any hope of Georgia winning a national title — was on the line. Murray himself said he was always confident, always believed in himself, even if Georgia fans didn’t. Defensive end Garrison Smith told me that Murray’s composure and skill in the efficient six-play, game-winning drive reminded him of Tom Brady.
To a man, every Georgia player spoke of their quarterback in the venerable terms that his performance deserved. Twenty of 34 for 298 yards. Four passing touchdowns to only one interception, plus one rushing touchdown. And most importantly, playing his best when it mattered most.
We’re still talking Aaron Murray here? The guy who until Saturday had a 2-9 record against top-15 opponents? The guy who always brought his team to the edge but never quite got over it?
Yes, we’re talking Aaron Murray. And after Saturday’s performance between the hedges of Sanford Stadium, let’s call Aaron Murray what he now is:
A big-game quarterback.
A fifth-year senior who not only could break all sorts of SEC passing records, but whose cool-as-a-cucumber poise is the exact thing you want if your quarterback is playing Dec. 7 in the SEC title game.
And, with a brutal September test out of the way — three games against top-10 opponents that included two wins and one razor-thin loss to an excellent Clemson team — a key part of a team on a path to the SEC title game that includes only one more game against a ranked opponent, against No. 20 Florida on Nov. 2.
Add all this up and it equals a quarterback who we’ve watched mature before our eyes, from a talented youngster who wilted under pressure to a savvy veteran who can beat a sixth-ranked LSU team when his Heisman-candidate running back, Todd Gurley, missed the second half with an injury. Now Murray can be considered another thing, too: One of only a handful of quarterbacks who can lead their teams to the national title this year.
“Aaron was phenomenal,” Georgia head coach Mark Richt said afterward. “He kept answering every score with another great play or throw. He played so well … He did super.”
Every football coach is quick to point out that football is the ultimate team game. And Richt was quick to point out that the reason Murray was able to play with so much poise was because Georgia’s offensive line was sealed up tight the whole game. Murray wasn’t sacked, while LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger was sacked four times. (Mettenberger, it should be said, matched Murray blow for blow; the former Georgia recruit who was kicked off the Bulldogs after an arrest redeemed himself, going for 372 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions.)
You couldn’t pick a player on Georgia who fell short, and there were plenty of stars: From Connor Norman, who recovered a fumble when LSU’s Odell Beckham Jr. dropped a punt, to running back Keith Marshall, who ran for nearly 100 yards with Gurley injured, to wideout Chris Conley, who caught five passes for 112 yards and a touchdown.
But just as important as playing like a team is looking toward your leader in the pressure situations, and you’d be hard-pressed to find someone lead a team better than Murray did Georgia on Saturday. Conley told me in the locker room that it was Murray who basically ran the team’s workouts and practices in the offseason. And it was Murray who, when his reputation stared him in the face with 4:14 to go on Saturday, calmly took charge of the situation.
This is one of the great things about sports: Reputations that seem cemented can melt and change in a season. LeBron James went from a petulant choker to a wise, selfless big-game player. Phil Mickelson went from the guy who couldn’t win the ones that mattered most to a golfer who is more clutch than Tiger Woods. The sports world is a place where the Pittsburgh Pirates — the stinking Pittsburgh Pirates, who with 21 consecutive losing seasons had the worst run in sports history — can breathe life into a suffering fan base by making this year’s baseball playoffs.
Fair or not, on Aug. 31, when Aaron Murray’s Bulldogs lost their opener to Clemson and seemed virtually gone from the national title picture, Aaron Murray was still considered a choker.
On Sept. 28, when Aaron Murray played like Tom Brady in what might have been the most exciting, pressure-packed game so far this college season, Aaron Murray became one of the best clutch performers in college football.
What a difference one six-play, 75-yard drive can make.
Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.