Georgia RB Brandon Harton (20) scores a touchdown in the second quarter Saturday against New Mexico State in Athens. It was Harton’s first start for the Bulldogs due to suspensions and injuries, and he made the most of it, rushing for 98 yards and a score.
ATHENS — As expected, the loss of four top running backs to suspensions and injury wasn’t much of a problem for Georgia in its game with New Mexico State on Saturday between the hedges.
Brandon Harton led a solid day by the running game with 98 yards and a touchdown on 15 carries to supplement a record-setting day for quarterback Aaron Murray as the Bulldogs routed the Aggies, 63-16, before a homecoming crowd of 92,746 at Sanford Stadium.
Murray completed 18 of 23 passes for 238 yards and a five touchdown passes — tying a school record — to five different receivers before sitting out the second half, with reserve receiver Chris Conley snagging five passes for 105 yards and a score as the Bulldogs rolled.
“I thought it was an outstanding day,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “I was very proud of how our team showed up ready to play football. … A lot of guys got an opportunity to play in the ball game, a couple for the first time. A couple guys scored touchdowns for the first time. Touched the ball for the first time. There were a lot of firsts out there.”
Among those experiencing a first was freshman walk-on Kyle Karempelis, who saw his first action and scored his first touchdown of his college career, finishing with 63 yards on 13 carries.
He was also part of a committee of running backs, along with Harton, that helped nullify the loss of tailbacks Isaiah Crowell, Carlton Thomas and Ken Malcome to suspensions issued earlier in the week due to failed drug tests, plus Richard Samuel to an ankle injury.
Samuel sustained the injury, which is expected to keep him out four weeks in last week’s win against Florida.
Turns out, they didn’t need him as the Bulldogs racked up 258 yards on the ground Saturday.
“They did what I asked them to do, what our coaches asked them to do,” Richt said. “And now we get an opportunity to relax a little bit, enjoy the rest of the day and watch the big ballgame (later Saturday) and hope Arkansas wins.”
The Razorbacks obliged.
The UGA win, coupled with South Carolina’s 44-28 loss to Arkansas puts Georgia back in first place in the SEC East.
It was Murray who provided the biggest boost by throwing for five TDs — all during a second quarter in which Georgia (7-2) outscored New Mexico State (3-6) by a 42-3 clip.
“It’s been like that all year for us,” Murray said of the Bulldogs’ ability to spread the wealth to so many different receivers. “We’ve had guys step up and making catches. I don’t know how many guys have touchdowns. … (Offensive coordinator Mike) Bobo has really called plays that have allowed me to use the entire field and not just focus on one side.”
The effect of the suspensions on Georgia’s game plan seemed to be evident early, with 12 of the Bulldogs’ first 17 offensive plays in the first half being passes.
Georgia drove the ball 57 yards on 10 plays — seven of them through the air — down to the New Mexico State 12-yard line on its first possession.
Harton gave the Bulldogs an encouraging sign with his first carry of the game by breaking through several tackles for a 9-yard gain down to the NMSU 3.
But in reaching for an extra yard, the redshirt sophomore had the ball stripped from him, and Aggies safety Donyae Coleman recovered in the end zone for a touchback to keep the game scoreless.
However, former Early County star Shawn Williams got that turnover back four plays later with a fumble recovery of his own at the Georgia 42. The Bulldogs forced three New Mexico State turnovers on the day, including an interception by another former Southwest Georgia star, Seminole County grad Bacarri Rambo. Williams finished with a team-high seven tackles — six solo — and Rambo was second with six total tackles.
And it took the Bulldogs’ offense just two plays to cash in.
It was Branden Smith, normally one of the team’s starting cornerbacks, who did the honors, breaking free around the right and sprinting 56 yards for a touchdown that put the Bulldogs up 7-0 with 7:17 left in the first quarter.
Still, it took Georgia a little while to fully breakaway from NMSU.
After the Aggies’ defense held the Bulldogs to a three-and-out, the offense drove 74 yards in eight plays, with the big play being Matt Christian’s 49-yard completion to Kenny Turner to the Georgia 30.
The drive eventually stalled at the 5, where Tyler Stampler booted a 22-yard field goal to cut Georgia’s lead to 7-3 just 10 seconds into the second quarter.
But Harton and the Bulldogs’ running game finally got going on the ensuing possession. And when it did, the rout was on.
Harton popped his biggest gain of the day of 27 yards, and carried six times for 49 yards on a seven-play, 61-yard Georgia drive and eventually took it the final 4 yards for the score that pushed the Bulldogs’ lead to 14-3 with 11:46 left in the first half.
After the defense held NMSU to a three-and-out, it was Karempelis’ turn.
The Wesleyan grad and two-time Gwinnett County high school rushing leader had runs of 3 and 20 yards on his first two collegiate carries to set up Murray’s 11-yard TD pass to Michael Bennett, which pushed the Georgia lead to 21-3 with 8:41 left in the half. He would eventual add his first college touchdown with a 1-yard dive in the third quarter.
Another member of Georgia’s tailback stopgap brigade then got into the act.
Cornerback/return specialist Brandon Boykin took a pass out of the backfield from a bootlegging Murray and scampered down the right sideline for a 42-yard touchdown to make the score 28-3 with 6:27 left in the half.
Murray then added scoring strikes of 47-yard to Chris Conley, 19 yards to Orson Charles and 6 yards to Aaron White to push the score to 49-3 by intermission, and the Bulldogs never looked back.
Georgia’s 627 yards of total offense was its most since the ‘93 game against Southern Mississippi. Nine Bulldogs scored a touchdown.
Murray left the stadium feeling rested and excited, as if he had played in a scrimmage.
“I don’t think I got touched one time by their defense,” he said with a smile. “I had the QB sneak, but I just fell on that one. It was a great offensive performance (Saturday). Our guys took the opportunity to get better, and we definitely did that.”
MURRAY MAKES THE RECORD BOOKS: While Murray worked only the first half Saturday, he nonetheless entered himself in the school’s record book.
The 6-foot-1, 211-pound redshirt sophomore, who completed 18 of 23 yards for 238 yards on the day, had five touchdown passes in the opening 30 minutes.
That tied the school record held by four other Bulldog quarterbacks, including South Gwinnett grad David Green (vs. LSU in 2004), plus Joe Cox (vs. Arkansas in 2009), Matthew Stafford (vs. Georgia Tech in 2008) and D.J. Shockley (vs. Boise State in 2005).