ATHENS — It seemed clear leading up to the game Murray State coach Mitch Stewart was intent on earning respect from his old coach and recruiter, Kirby Smart.
It’s safe to say that happened on Saturday, even though the No. 3-ranked Bulldogs scored a 63-17 victory at Sanford Stadium.
After one quarter of play, Stewart’s FCS Racers had played one of the nation’s finest teams to a 7-7 standstill — in their home opener, on a day legendary Georgia coach Vince Dooley was honored.
Dooley was in the ESPN broadcast booth to talk about the field being named after him, but instead he called out the Bulldogs on their slow start and complimented Stewart’s Racers as the first quarter unfolded.
“Murray State is looking pretty good,” Dooley said during the ESPN2 broadcast, just before the Racers scored. “Wonderful pass … those kind of things will make me remember playing teams when you’re not ready to play and almost get beat, so we better turn it up a notch, and I think we will, because this team has great potential.”
Racers’ senior linebacker T.J. Warren said he could feel the energy.
“We were all pumping each other up,” Warren said. “Like, ‘Come on! We can hang with these guys!”
Stewart said the mood on the Murray State sideline was “joy.”
“They were just happy and it wasn’t like there was a shock factor or anything like that,” Stewart said. “We had a huge belief system in our locker room. We start each team meeting off with the same graphic up on the screens, and it just says ‘Belief.’ “
Bulldogs fans believed Smart and his team weren’t going to have more of it in the second quarter, and sure enough, quarterback Jake Fromm responded.
Georgia scored 35 unanswered points to take a 42-7 lead into halftime.
But Stewart, who earlier in the week pledged Murray State would be the harder playing team, kept his team’s head together and made adjustments.
The Racers outscored Georgia 10-7 in the third quarter, his players maintaining their fight.
Cornerback Nigel Walton scored for Murray State on a Pick-6 off UGA backup Stetson Bennett.
“First, I want to say Georgia was a great opponent,” said Walton, a senior from Atlanta. “We gave great effort. They gave great effort. It just felt great being back in my home state, paling in front of a lot of home fans.”
Walton said he read Bennett’s eyes on the play, the UGA backup staring down the receiver.
“The play was a fire zone blitz,” Walton said. “I read the quarterback’s eyes. I saw he was staring at my man, and I saw my man run a hitch out of the corner of my eye. As soon as he threw it, I just broke and was able to jump in front of it and take it to the house.”
Murray State’s other touchdown came off what Stewart and his offensive staff call a “PRO” — Pass-Run-Option.
“We had to pass there before we did the run,” Stewart said. “Preston did a nice job delivering the ball.
“Preston Rice, man, a guy goes out in his second collegiate start and one of he biggest atmospheres there is in college football … and that joker goes 20-of-25, takes care of the football, throws for 200 yards and rushes the ball pretty good.”
Indeed, Rice was 20-of-25 passing for 216 yards and a touchdown and broke off a 35-yard run.
Georgia also sacked him five times, but Rice and Florida transfer DaQuon Green will always have the memory of that 60-yard touchdown pass that stunned Sanford Stadium.
Smart explained there was a busted covered with no middle safety, and defensive back Mark Webb got beat ever so slightly by Green who turned on the jets and out-ran J.R. Reed.
“Obviously, there were no moral victories in this game,” said Stewart, who was recruited to play quarterback at Valdosta State by Smart. “Our guys don’t want any moral victories, but I’m really pleased with and encouraged with the effort in which we played.
“If you look back on it, we broke even in the first (quarter), I think, and then we won the third quarter,” he said. “I believe we’ve got a ton more positives coming out of this game.”
Murray State exited the stadium moments after one of the toughest Bulldogs on the Georgia squad put the Racers’ performance into perspective.
“They definitely came out and played hard, salute to those guys,” UGA offensive lineman Cade Mays said, “they fought all four quarters.”
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