Georgia hopes Gurley’s return puts explosion in offense

Georgia running back Todd Gurley will be back in the lineup Saturday vs. Florida, and the Bulldogs hope their star rusher’s return will help the offense’s big-play potential. (Reuters)

Georgia running back Todd Gurley will be back in the lineup Saturday vs. Florida, and the Bulldogs hope their star rusher’s return will help the offense’s big-play potential. (Reuters)

ATHENS — Mark Richt actually laughed out loud at one of the questions he fielded at Tuesday’s weekly news conference.

Was there a specific reason the Bulldogs didn’t take more shots downfield against Vanderbilt, the Georgia coach was asked?

Certainly Richt must have been thinking, “well, maybe it had something to do with having three of our top four receivers on crutches or the fact that safeties don’t honor tailbacks Brendan Douglas and J.J. Green quite as much as they do Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall.”

But if he did think that, Richt didn’t let it come out of his mouth. Instead he calmly and politely answered the question this way: “I would say if we had to play the game again we would have taken a couple of shots downfield. Whether we would have completed them or not, it’s just good to do.”

As it was, Georgia’s longest completion against the Commodores was for 17 yards, and that on a screen pass to Green. The Bulldogs had a 15-yard completion to wide receiver Chris Conley, who suffered an ankle injury on the last play of the game. That likely will keep him out of Saturday’s game, too.

For those keeping count, that’s Georgia’s top four pass catchers and top two rushers sidelined with injuries through the first seven games. Or, put another way, their top six offensive playmakers overall.

It’s little wonder that the Bulldogs have encountered a recent reduction in “explosive offensive plays.”

Georgia managed only 221 yards of offense against the Commodores after averaging just under 500 in the first six games.

“It was awesome at the beginning of the season because there were so many weapons,” said senior right end Arthur Lynch, who had one catch, for 7 yards, in that game. “It just opens so much across the board. If they come in the box, bring the safeties up, we could get behind the safeties and hit them over the top. We were getting hit more down the middle of the field when we had everybody out there.”

The Bulldogs hope that two additions this week could help loosen the defense. Barring setbacks, Georgia will have leading rusher Todd Gurley back in the lineup, as well as wide receiver Michael Bennett.

“(Gurley) just adds so much to the offense and the run game, obviously,” Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray said. “It allows us to do more in the playbook. And he just brings an excitement to the team. Making plays, running guys over, stiff-arming guys, that just pumps the guys up, pumps the offense up, pumps the defense up, pumps up everybody. It gets everybody amped up and into the game.”

But the question still remains whether there will be enough playmakers to get the job done against Florida. The Gators will bring to EverBank Field one of the stronger defensive units in America. Even after losing star defensive lineman Dominique Easley for the season to a knee injury, the Gators rank third in the nation in pass efficiency, fourth in total defense, fifth in passing yards allowed and eighth in scoring.

Florida easily has the most tenacious and stingy defense Georgia has faced this season.

“It’s going to be a physical, hard-fought football game,” Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said. “Nobody’s going to give anybody an inch. You’re going to have to earn everything that you get. It’s going to have be a game of patience.”

Said Murray: “It’s going to be tough. They are very talented on defense. You turn on the film, and they’re dominating every single snap. So it’s going to be a big challenge for us this week. We’re really going to have to work hard on our game plan and make sure we know everything we’re doing.

“I’ve got to make sure I’m checking into the right plays and putting us in the right situation play in and play out and take care of the football.”

Georgia has been in this situation before against the Gators. Two years ago the Bulldogs went to Jacksonville without receivers Malcolm Mitchell and Marlon Brown, who were sidelined with injuries. But a couple of young receivers named Bennett and Conley stepped up, as well as an unknown walk-on named Rhett McGowan. McGowan came through with a first-down catch on a third-down play to sustain a drive as Georgia came from behind to win late in the game.

“We were down just like this and some guys had to step up,” said McGowan, a senior and part of the rotation for this game. “I was one of the young guys who didn’t have much experience, and we had one of the best games we’ve had all year.”