Georgia tops LSU in quarterback duel for the ages
ATHENS, Ga. -- The story of Saturday's LSU-Georgia game, a new-age SEC shootout on a quintessential fall Saturday, began long before kickoff. It took root five years ago in a dorm cluster on the east side of Georgia's brick-lined campus.
Two quarterbacks in Georgia's 2009 football recruiting class -- local hotshot Zach Mettenberger and Tampa blue-chipper Aaron Murray -- roomed together in East Campus Village. They became fast friends, redshirting and sharing their final moments of college anonymity all while dreaming of becoming SEC standouts.
Four years, one arrest and countless twists of fate later, Murray and Mettenberger met on opposite sidelines at Sanford Stadium just a few hundred yards from their old dorm room. The collision of an epic game and improbable storyline provided an electric show, as Murray and Mettenberger helped deliver the best game of the 2013 season to date.
Murray threw a go-ahead 25-yard touchdown pass with 1:47 remaining to give Georgia a 44-41 victory. But that came after 943 combined yards, five ties, four lead changes and a surprising twist to end the game -- a Georgia defensive stop.
"This is a game we'll talk about 20 or 30 years down the road, when we're all old," said Murray before peering at the graying assembled media around him. "And y'all are really, really old."
Murray won the game against Mettenberger by throwing for 298 yards, four touchdowns and just one interception. Mettenberger arguably looked like the better quarterback, as he passed for 372 yards, three touchdowns and no picks.
Was the game better than the storyline? Or the storyline better than the game? Fans will debate that at Magnolias or Nowhere Bar in Athens for years to come.
"You can't write this script much better," said Georgia tight end Arthur Lynch, a fifth-year senior who arrived on campus with Murray and Mettenberger. "It's cool to see two guys duke it out, like a heavyweight fight between quarterbacks."
Mettenberger left Georgia at the end of his freshman year in 2010, as he pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor counts of sexual battery after an incident at a ball called "Flip Flops" near Valdosta, Ga. (He's still banned from the city of Valdosta). The incident proved especially difficult because Mettenberger grew up in the Georgia football office, where his mom, Tammy, has been an administrative assistant since 1999. Richt gave Tammy this week off, acknowledging the awkwardness that had been hanging over the program since last season ended.
"I think this was definitely the elephant in the room for the past eight months," Lynch said. "We knew we were going to play LSU, we knew these two kids were roommates at one point. It's easy to talk about the storyline now, and we definitely didn't want to make a big deal out of it. But it was a big deal for both players."
On this night, both players shined in a game that will weigh heavily on each of their legacies. Murray entered this season dogged by the reputation that he came up short on the biggest stages, epitomized by Georgia's poor clock management at the end of last year's SEC title game. The Bulldogs fell five yards short of beating Alabama and playing for the BCS title, prompting a long offseason of questions about Murray's big-game acumen.
But after a September that saw Murray play well in a loss at Clemson and lead the Bulldogs to dramatic wins over South Carolina and LSU, he has proven he can come through when it matters most. After leading rusher Todd Gurley went out with a left ankle sprain in the second quarter, Murray played calm and mistake free. He certainly relished in the victory afterward, sprinting toward Georgia's student section and high-fiving delirious students over the Bulldogs' famous hedges. Georgia's impressive response to its season-opening loss makes it the favorite to win the SEC East and return Atlanta, potentially giving Murray a chance to rewrite last year's ending.
"It's always a goal, to get back to Atlanta," Murray said. "And this game is a big step in that direction."
Still, the best quarterback on Saturday -- especially in the preening eyes of NFL scouts -- may have been Mettenberger. He finished 23-for-37 with a flurry of impressive passes. He threw a first-quarter touchdown pass to Kadron Boone a split second before getting pummeled on a blitz. Facing a crucial third-and-10 in the fourth quarter, he dissected triple coverage to complete a gorgeous 25-yard pass to Jarvis Landry.
But no completion from this game will epitomize Mettenberger's effort more than his conversion of third-and-22 on LSU's final scoring drive. It was the ultimate bailout play, as Mettenberger began the drive by taking a sack, fumbling a snap and burning a timeout. But he calmly found wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. over the middle for 25 yards, setting up an eight-yard Jeremy Hill touchdown run that gave LSU a 41-37 lead with 4:14 left.
"Did you see the throws?" snapped Richt when asked about Georgia's defense giving up big plays on third-and-long. "I thought they were pretty amazing throws."
Richt said he felt like a "proud father" watching Murray and Mettenberger slinging the ball around. Mettenberger was less reflective afterward, sticking to pregame clichés.
"It was just another game," Mettenberger said. "People put too much stock into it."
Perhaps the best insight about Mettenberger comes from the man who coached him in between stints in Athens and Death Valley. Mettenberger spent a year at Butler Community College in El Dorado, Kan., where coach Troy Morrell recalls Mettenberger as cocksure young quarterback with such a natural delivery that the ball sounded distinct when he threw it.
"That ball actually sizzled through the air, nothing like I'd every really heard before," Morrell said in a phone interview on Friday night. Morrell recalls Mettenberger's easygoing nature, right down to his penchant for cracking up teammates and coaches with his dead-on impressions of Kenny Powers, the main character of the HBO show Eastbound & Down.
Mettenberger threw 32 touchdowns and just four interceptions in his lone season at Butler, which ended in a loss in the juco national title game. That year offered the first glimpses of Mettenberger's full potential before new LSU offensive coordinator Cam Cameron tapped into it again this season.
Morrell said that he always found Mettenberger more accurate on deep balls, and he added that the biggest difference for Mettenberger in Cameron's offense has been the protection he has received.
"I think it has to do a lot to do with the offensive line in front of him," Morrell said. "They had so many freshmen and injuries."
LSU's line failed Mettenberger on its final drive, which raises a frightening question: How would LSU fare if Mettenberger reverted to the sporadic form he showed last season?
It's like LSU has become a bizarre version of itself. The program that for years relied on a stout defense and steady run game under coach Les Miles has suddenly found itself with a pedestrian run game and porous defense. The elite passer the Tigers have lacked has bailed them out.
Miles was asked if this is a new era of offense in the SEC. "I hope not," he sighed.
But he certainly wasn't complaining about Mettenberger's rise this season. "Was he perfect?" Miles asked. "No. But he was damn good."
So was Murray, who politely ducked most of the postgame questions about his old friend and former roommate. Murray kept reflecting on the historical perspective of this game, projecting how it'll be viewed years from now. He seemed well aware that the storyline between he and Mettenberger would be meshed with it.
"I'm glad it's over," Murray said, "that's for sure."
On a night when a bizarre confluence of circumstances intersected with a classic game, he may have been the only one.