Todd Gurley will likely return for the Georgia Bulldogs on Saturday against Florida. The sophomore will make his way back from an ankle sprain and try to pick up where he left off—averaging over 100 yards per game on the ground and accounting for 23 touchdowns in his first 18 collegiate games. The presence of jersey No. 3 will be a welcome sigh of relief for Aaron Murray and the Georgia offense, but it won’t be the most important return.
That distinction belongs to wide receiver Michael Bennett.
With Gurley in the lineup, Georgia averaged 209 yards per game on the ground. Without him, the difference was noticeable (especially given Keith Marshall’s injury) and the Bulldog rushing attack declined by 18.8 percent to just 169.7 yards per game.
In the Tennessee game (the game in which Bennett was injured) Georgia’s offense accounted for 315.2 yards through the air. The loss of Bennett (and Justin Scott-Wesley) rendered Murray largely ineffective in his last two games against Missouri and Vanderbilt. Without Bennett in the lineup, Georgia’s passing attack declined by 35.9 percent to a meager 202 yards per game.
Admittedly, it’s hard to blame that entire discrepancy on Bennett, but Gurley isn’t the sole reason for a rushing decline either. And the fact remains that while both the ground and passing games have been banged up, the passing game has fallen more drastically.
Bennett’s chemistry with Murray transcends simple statistical output. To be sure, it is telling that Bennett has caught 70 balls from Murray despite appearing in fewer than half (a total of 23 games) of Murray’s 48 career starts. But Murray’s situational reliance on Bennett is what matters most. In turn, Bennett’s absence has effectively stalled Georgia's offense.
Of Bennett’s 70 career catches, 33 have resulted in first down yardage; another 11 have resulted in points being scored. Put more simply, nearly 63 percent of the receiver’s career receptions have moved the chains. This year alone, 10 of Bennett’s 14 catches (71.4 percent) have resulted in a first down or a touchdown.
Bennett and Gurley play completely different positions, but for comparison’s sake, Todd Gurley has run for a first down or touchdown on 24 of his 70 carries (34.3 percent) this year.
Murray has spoken at length regarding the challenges of working with new receivers. Prior to the Vanderbilt game he told Seth Emerson of the Macon Telegraph that the mistrust was a product of “uncertainty.” He admitted the receivers weren’t to blame, saying, “There wasn’t any missed assignments when it comes to routes. They got open. And when I did hit those guys they made plays with the ball.”
Still, it’s hard to blame a fifth-year senior for not trusting brand-new weapons on the outside. He doesn’t have that trust issue with Bennett.
In 2011 and 2012, Bennett registered 34 chain-moving catches. Nearly one-third of those receptions came on third or fourth down. Murray trusts Bennett, especially in big spots, and there should be plenty of such opportunities against a fierce Florida defense. Perhaps with a favorite target back in the lineup, offensive coordinator Mike Bobo's plan to "Make plays…and cut it loose" will come to fruition.
That could make all the difference.