Aaron Murray jumped around excitedly with his teammates as Zach Mettenberger’s last-ditch attempt to convert on 4th and 10 ended in an incompletion. Mettenberger looked over across the field dejected. There was a little less than a minute left on the clock; the game was all but over. Murray put his head gear on and headed out onto the field to execute the victory formation. Meanwhile, Mettenberger sat on the bench, staring into an endless sea of red shirts, dresses, and poms poms. He wanted a chance to play in Sanford again. He wanted a chance to beat his old team. Instead, he’d have to settle for watching Murray flip the helmet off of his head, flash a winning smile and embrace his coach.
As the clock wound down to 0:00, the score stood at 44-41 Georgia. It was over. And it was one of the best football games I have ever watched.
The build up to LSU and Georgia was centered around the story line of the quarterbacks of each respective school. The narrative was as follows: two freshman with dreams of starting for the Bulldogs end up as roommates and friendly competitors. One of the young men received the starting job as a result of the other’s awful actions that led to dismissal from the team and a transfer to junior college. The starter was Aaron Murray, and the junior college transfer was Zach Mettenberger.
As the years went on, Murray would play in two SEC Championship games, while Mettenberger only rode the pine during the 2011 conference championship. Murray would be haunted in the offseason of 2012 by a dropped pass that was seen as the example for his type of play in high-pressure situations. He was deemed as the high-profile signal caller who could not “win the big game.” Meanwhile, Mettenberger seemed to fit the common stereotype of all of LSU’s quarterbacks within the Les Miles era. He was good enough to win ugly. The outlier for fitting that mold was the 2012 game against Alabama, in which he had an impressive game over Alabama’s vaunted defense.
After three years of lost games, dropped balls, bowl wins, grueling practices and offensive coordinator changes, it culminated in September 28th, 2013.
The week leading up to the game was highlighted by an announcement from Mark Richt that Tammy Mettenberger, Zach’s mother, would be given the week from her duties as an administrative assistant on Richt’s staff. Georgia’s head coach did not want things to get “awkward” around the office.
College Gameday descended on Athens, with most of the signage being directed at the exiled quarterback. “Mettenberger wets the bed,” “Mettenberger shaves his legs,” “Mettenberger used my other sign as a fake ID,” and “LSU – the place to go when you’re not good enough to start at UGA.” This was only a tenth of what the atmosphere was actually like for him. During LSU’s first possession, boos reined down on Mettenberger from every single direction, as if the CBS broadcast was placed in a massive echo chamber. Fans screamed at him from the stands – their rants and raves putting weight on his shoulder pads. Murray, on the other hand, was wearing the baggage associated with “Big Game Aaron Murray.” As soon as LSU kicked off, it was as if all of the off-the-field issues weren’t even a factor.
The Bulldogs came out of the gate swinging. Murray led the offense with a first drive that was highlighted by a connection to Arthur Lynch which took UGA from LSU’s 40 to the 19. Later, Murray would record the game’s first touchdown with a five-yard pass to Michael Bennett. The questions surrounding LSU’s defense were answered: there isn’t much of one.
LSU’s glaring weaknesses were in their front seven where the loss of impact players like Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo left the Tigers without a great pass rush. But the same could be said for Georgia’s secondary who lost key components like Alec Ogletree and it showed when Mettenberger completed with Kadron Boone for 48 yards untouched. These early shots across the bow began building the tale of the conference – the loss of great defensive players to the NFL has led to an offensive boom in a league where fundamental defense is the bread and butter.
Lack of great defensive play allowed for a marquee quarterback match-up that the NFL normally peddles in.
The game was blow for blow after the opening shots. Touchdown LSU. Touchdown Georgia. Field goal Georgia. Field goal LSU. It was like watching a very literal music video for “Anything You Can Do”. Both quarterbacks were throwing efficiently, aside from a Murray interception which led to an LSU touchdown. Keith Marshall and Todd Gurley were also helping on the ground when their quarterback could not get anything done through the air. Mettenberger was doing most of the heavy lifting, as LSU’s rushing attack failed to find the same consistency as Georgia heading into the second half.
Down by a deficit of seven points, LSU received the ball to start the third quarter. The Tigers drove down the field and settled for a field goal. Murray and Co. responded with another field goal to keep the lead within seven. Then, another Mettenberger-led drive tied LSU at 27-27 with UGA.
UGA received the ball with another possession to strike, but an inspired LSU defense came out swinging and used the officiating team to its advantage. The officials were very relaxed on pass interference calls, which allowed the Tigers’ defense to get away with some calls that led to two dropped passes from Chris Conley. UGA punted the ball, with Bulldog fans shouting for something to stop LSU from getting the ball and a chance at the lead. They received it in the form of an Odell Beckham Jr. muffed punt which the Bulldogs recovered and on which they capitalized with a pass from Murray to Michael Bennett.
The score was now 34-27 Georgia.
LSU would respond heading into the fourth quarter with a drive that was highlighted by an amazing grab by high flying Tiger, Jarvis Landry, for 25 yards and a resulting touchdown.
The score was tied for the second time in the game at 34-34.
Georgia would lead all the way down the field but would falter in the red zone, as Michael Bennett could not come up with a pass to convert the first down. The Bulldogs settled for a field goal and put everything in their defense’s hands with 4:08 left in regulation.
It was at this point that the game took a turn into one of the best I had ever seen.
The kick to LSU was returned by Odell Beckham to his own 25-yard line. Mettenberger took a snap and then was almost instantaneously eaten alive by Jordan Jenkins. The play resulted in a loss of six yards. The quarterback stepped up again and took another snap. Again, the offensive line was pushed back and forced aside. He was sacked for a loss of six and lost the football. Kenny Hilliard was able to hop on the ball and maintain possession, but the Tigers were now in what Ulysses Everett McGill would call “a tight spot”.
On their own 13-yard line with 23 yards to convert for a first down, the Tigers knew they had to rely on Mettenberger and that they could rely on them. If it was another year, another LSU quarterback and another offensive coordinator in the same situation, this would’ve been the moment where all hope was lost. There was no coming back – the Tigers would be done for, with title hopes dashed. Sanford Stadium rose to its feet and shouted at the top of its lungs. At that moment, it felt like the whole world was about to cave in on LSU. I had texted a friend at that exact moment and told them, “this is it. This is where they implode.” With a drop step and defenders in his face, Mettenberger threaded a needle to Beckham for a gain of 24 yards. First down, Tigers.
Mettenberger would then throw to Jarvis Landry for 12 and then 17 yards on subsequent downs until Beckham redeemed himself from his prior fumble to the Georgia punt team. He caught a pass and then dodged around some defenders until getting to Georgia’s 8-yard line.
With Aaron Murray looking on, Jeremy Hilliard ran the ball in eight yards for a touchdown.
Murray immediately took his candy apple red hat off of his head and put on his helmet. It was time to go to work. It was time for a response. It was time to put the misnomer of “Big Game Aaron Murray” to bed.
Georgia started on its own 25-yard line but quickly split through the LSU defense. With an 11-yard pass to Justin Scott-Wesley and then a 9 yard pass to Arthur Lynch, it seemed as if LSU’s defense was sleep walking on the field. Another Keith Marshall run, an Arthur Lynch reception and a huge run by J.J. Green, who was in for the injured Todd Gurley, put the Bulldogs within striking distance. With a little under three minutes left in the game, Murray passed it to Scott-Wesley again for 25 yards and another touchdown.
Before LSU took the field, my friend texted me that, “whoever has the ball last wins it.” I agreed for the most part, and everything I had seen from Mettenberger and the Georgia defense suggested that the ensuing drive would either end in overtime or in an LSU win. With Sanford Stadium on fire and the clock slowly winding down with no timeouts left for LSU, the one-time Georgia backup faced his biggest task. He was here in Athens, under the lights and between the hedges. He was here to beat his roommate, his rival. He was here to prove that he had changed.
He took a snap from the shotgun. Sacked. The crowd grew loud and unrelenting. It looked like the jitters were getting to the offensive lineman. Mettenberger took another snap and completed it to Odell Beckham for 18 yards. Maybe not – maybe it could at least tie this. Maybe LSU could win this.
Then, the rails came off. He threw an incomplete pass to Jarvis Landry from the LSU 35.
And another to Odell Beckham.
And another to Jarvis Landry.
4th and 10. Mettenberger takes the snap, looks for an open man, and fires. The ball hits a spot to which not a single LSU receiver is near. The stands erupt. The viewing public watches as half of the Georgia bench explodes into unrequited joy. Murray is jumping around with his teammates as if this was the biggest game of their lives. The clock started to wind down, the offensive unit composing itself to take the field one last time.
As the offense aligned itself for the victory formation, those who viewed at home saw one of the most emotional pieces of football footage from the early 2013 season. It was Mettenberger, on the bench, his eyes almost welling up with tears. This was the last game he would ever play in Sanford Stadium. This was what he dreamed about. He dreamed about Sanford being this loud. He dreamed about hearing the swell of the crowd. Now, he was in a different uniform, on a different bench, with the crowd cheering for the player who beat him out in 2009. He was in a nightmare, and it showed.
When Murray took his second knee, it all ended. Mark Richt raced to meet Mettenberger in the middle of the field, and then he walked over to his quarterback. Embracing Murray, Richt was shedding tears. It was a moment of pride he had in the one player who had been called out by fan and outsider alike for not having what it took to win a monumental game. Here, Murray had taken down his second top 10 opponent of the 2013 season, and he did it against the guy who could have been interviewed right next to Richt as he talked to Tracy Wolfson.
That, my friends, was one hell of a game.