Photo: Lily McGregor Georgia's Todd Gurley (3) brushes off Georgia Southern's John Stevenson (41) on his way to a touchdown Saturday in Athens.
ATHENS -- With the SEC East title already in hand, Georgia got a good battle from a triple option team Saturday to prepare for Paul Johnson's similar offense next week with a 45-14 win over Georgia Southern.
The Eagles (8-3, 6-3 Southen Conference) put up a great fight for the first 30 minutes. They were poised to take a 14-10 halftime lead, but an illegal block call against Peachtree Ridge grad Trevor McBurnett negated a first-down run to the 5-yard line. Instead, GSU was backed up 15 yards and Alex Hanks was wide right on a 39-yard field goal try.
Georgia (10-1, 7-1 SEC) came out on offense with a long field in front of it and just 1:03 to go in the half with no timeouts. But Aaron Murray completed 4 of 6 passes on the drive, including a 24-yard touchdown pass to Malcolm Mitchell with four seconds left in the half, to put the Bulldogs up 17-7 going into the locker room. It was Georgia's seventh scoring drive of the season of less than a minute.
"We got a couple of breaks in the first half," Georgia coach Mark Richt said. "If not for the chop block (penalty), they may score right there. Instead, they had to kick a field goal and left some time on the clock. I was very impressed with the job Murray and the boys did with less than a minute to go."
GSU coach Jeff Monken defended McBurnett on the chop block penalty call that swung the momentum. He said the defender initiated contact with the center, instead of the center locking up first, before McBurnett came in on a low block that drew the call.
"I've never heard so much talk about blocking below the waist," Monken said of pre-game chatter in the media. "We play the game legally, coach our guys to play it legally. Blocking below the waist is legal. I don't think it's any more dangerous than tackling below the waist. ... Obviously (the officials) saw something they thought was illegal. But I tell my guys all the time you've got to overcome things like that. You can't count on the officials to get everything right. They're human."
The Bulldogs came out in the third and stepped up on both sides of the ball, gaining 173 yards to the Eagles' 31 in the quarter. Murray (18 of 28, 330 yards, 4 TDs) found Chris Conley twice and Tavarres King once for scores during the third, increasing the Bulldogs' lead to 38-7 going into the fourth.
The defense held GSU in check for most of the quarter thanks in large part to the starting inside linebacker tandem of Alec Ogletree and GAC grad Christian Robinson. They each made four tackles in the quarter. Ogletree recovered a fumble that set up a Bulldog score, and Robinson stopped running back Jonathan Bryant for losses twice in the third.
"It just took us some time to get comfortable with what they were doing and what plays they were going to run," Ogletree said. "Once we got comfortable with them, I thought we played a pretty good game."
Ogletree finished the game with a team-leading 12 tackles. Robinson was second with nine.
"We tackled better in the second half," Richt said. "We had to make sure we were tackling better and wrapping up better. ... Christian has done a very good job. He had a really big hit last week on a little flare route. He's always been a guy who knows what to do, can help get his teammates lined up properly and make calls."
After Todd Gurley (15 carries, 68 yards, TD) scored on Georgia's first drive of the game, the Bulldogs had a lot of trouble getting back to the end zone. The Eagles used their option attack to grind the clock on the ground and took the next drive from their own 29 to the Georgia 34 with a fourth and 3. Buford grad Dominique Swope (17 carries, 92 yards) went up the middle for just one yard on the play behind North grad Manrey Saint-Amour and Mill Creek grad Austin Hagan. Rambo and John Jenkins filled up the hole and forced the turnover on downs.
Marshall Morgan missed a 52-yard field goal on the next drive, but Georgia got the ball back when Jerick McKinnon (19 carries, 109 yards, two TDs) coughed the ball up. Garrison Smith recovered it at the Bulldog 33.
Norcross grad Dion DuBose covered up a fumble by Rhett McGowan after a completion from Murray late in the first quarter, setting up the Eagles' first score. GSU went 55 yards in 10 plays, finished off by a McKinnon TD run from a yard out to tie the game at 7-7 early in the second quarter.
Morgan nailed a 37-yard field goal attempt on Georgia's next drive after GSU's Patrick Flowe, a Parkview grad, sacked Murray for a loss of seven on third down. Flowe finished the game with three tackles.
GSU put up a TD in the fourth quarter when McKinnon made a nice cutback on a run up the middle for a 23-yard score. The Eagles tried to sneak an onside kick by the Bulldogs, but Wesleyan grad Kyle Karempelis fell on the ball. Georgia finished up the scoring when Parker Welch connected with Justin Scott-Wesley for a 13-yard TD pass with 3:36 to go.
Saint-Amour complimented the Georgia defense, which held the Eagles to 302 yards on the ground. GSU entered the game leading the Football Championship Subdivision with an average of 401.2 yards per game.
"They played hard, played tough," he said. "We just gave them everything we had, 110 percent. We felt like we could run with them, and we gave them our best shot."
Swope said a game in a big environment should help the team in the postseason.
"It was exciting to get to play in Sanford Stadium," he said. "We were playing tough for a while, but in the second half I feel like they caught on to us. We're disappointed to lose, but we played a great game today and we will take this as a lesson leading into the playoffs."