The first game of a pivotal season for Dawgs coach Mark Richt went off about as well as could be hoped: All things considered, that was the happiest I've seen Georgia fans leaving Sanford Stadium in quite a while. OK, yeah, the opponent was just a middling Sun Belt team, but we'll draw some nuggets out of it when and where we can. Here's what we learned from opening day:
1. That Aaron Murray's going to be just fine. Eventually. Georgia's redshirt-freshman QB, who threw his very first meaningful pass in a Georgia uniform on Saturday, acquitted himself quite nicely: 17-of-26 passing for 160 yards, three TDs, and a solitary pick. I counted only one pass all afternoon about which I was muttering "Boy, you really shouldn't have thrown that" -- the late-first-half heave to the back of the end zone that would've been an interception had the Louisiana DB not dropped it; ironically, Murray's pick was a perfectly thrown pass that Kris Durham bobbled into the hands of ULL's Lance Kelley. Murray was helped out considerably by having plenty of time to throw, but he made plenty of lovely throws on the run, thanks in part to a lightning-quick release that enabled him to set and throw in the blink of an eye on more than a couple of occasions.
Turns out the kid's got some wheels, too -- he never got sacked, and wound up as the team's third leading rusher with 42 yards on just four carries, including a thrilling 16-yard touchdown scramble on the last play of the first half. That run might've been a wee bit too thrilling for Mark Richt's tastes: "I thought a couple of times when he was out of the pocket he could have thrown the ball out of bounds," Richt said after the game. "He would turn up and try to dodge people, and he's going to get splattered if he does that." Yeah, Murray could probably stand to keep his fearlessness in check a little given the lack of depth on our roster at the QB position, but for right now, at least, nobody's going to give the kid too much of a hard time for wanting to be a playmaker.
(And while we're lauding Murray for his excellent day, let's not leave out his backup, true freshman Hutson Mason, who began his Georgia career in the manner every Dawg dreams of -- a 26-yard touchdown pass to Logan Gray on his very first throw in a Georgia uniform. He's just the seventh QB in the history of Division I-A to hit paydirt on his very first pass attempt.)
2. That Todd Grantham don't suffer no fools. In its very first game, Georgia's 3-4 defensive front also did a hell of a job: They held the Ragin' Cajuns to single digits on the scoreboard and to only 128 yards of offense, including a mere 14 yards rushing. And half of ULL's total yardage came on a single play, the 60-yard touchdown pass that constituted their only score of the afternoon. Yet to see the way defensive coordinator Todd Grantham bawled out the secondary after that play -- which immediately followed a Georgia turnover and was supposedly the product of miscommunication as the defense frantically raced to get set -- you'd have thought it was the go-ahead touchdown that broke a 38-38 tie. Sure, as far as the fans in the stands are concerned, Grantham's rant was more symbolic than anything else, but it showed that even when the defense is performing at max efficiency, blatant gaffes like the busted coverage won't be swept under the rug. It was an invigorating sign that the days of passive, read-and-react defense in Athens appear to be over.
3. That the offensive line still has some kinks to work out. Though touted as the most critical strength on a loaded offensive roster for the Dawgs, the offensive line was beset by injuries during summer practice, and it showed at times on Saturday. Georgia totaled 184 rushing yards at the rate of five yards per carry, but breakout plays were few and far between -- Aaron Murray's 21-yard bootleg early in the second half was Georgia's longest rush of the day -- and from my vantage point almost square in the middle of the east end-zone seats, it didn't look like any massive holes were being opened up for the running backs. Of course, the game plan was pretty vanilla, so neither Caleb King nor Carlton Thomas were given the opportunity to try a lot of outside runs, nor did we get to see what Washaun Ealey was capable of. We won't have long to find out, though, as this weekend's trip to South Carolina looms large.
Overall impressions: Like most of you, I've become accustomed to seeing Georgia loaf around against these early-season scrub opponents for large chunks of the game, and that applies even when we're fielding a loaded team with a minimum of glaring question marks. So it was invigorating to see this team -- with a brand-new QB, completely overhauled defense, and several important starters on the sideline -- grab the Ragin' Cajuns by the throat early and not let go for 60 minutes. The double-nickel on the scoreboard was Georgia's highest scoring output since dropping 56 on Central Michigan almost exactly two years ago, and the 48-point margin of victory is the largest the Dawgs have managed at any point in the Mark Richt era. It wasn't a perfect performance, but it sure didn't look sloppy.
Now: How much of this carries over to the South Carolina game this week? Hard to say, but "not much" seems like a reasonable answer; the Gamecocks looked terrific routing what was supposedly a respectable Southern Miss team Thursday night, and if they've indeed finally found an offensive formula that works, we won't be gushing quite so effusively over our 3-4 defensive front come next Sunday morning. But for one lovely Saturday afternoon, it was good to see the Dawgs get their swagger back on both sides of the ball. No, we're not going to win every game this season, but it looks like we've got a good shot at winning most of 'em.
Player of the game: As good as Murray looked, the bigger question mark heading into this game was arguably the defense as a whole, who acquitted themselves about as well as anyone in red and black could've hoped. Special props go to linebacker Akeem Dent, who tied for the Georgia lead with six total tackles and destroyed ULL's Chris Masson with a nine-yard sack early in the second quarter, and fellow LB Christian Robinson, who didn't put together an eye-popping stat line but played a nearly flawless game in terms of lining up correctly and neutralizing his assigned opponent. Overall, it was a more disciplined performance from the entire defense than we've seen in a long, long time.
Stats of the game: +2 and 5 -- Georgia's turnover margin and number of penalties, respectively, against the Ragin' Cajuns. Both of those numbers have royally handcuffed the Dawgs over the past couple seasons, so it was good to see signs of progress in both areas, particularly the former. As I've mentioned before, Georgia managed to win eight games last year despite a turnover margin that, by UGA standards, qualified as historically bad; any improvement in that area, to say nothing of a positive overall margin for 2010, could equal a special season indeed.