Murray closes on passing record

ATHENS, Ga. -- Pardon Orson Charles if he seems unsurprised by Aaron Murray's pursuit of Georgia's single-season passing touchdown record.

Charles already has seen Murray etch his name into the record books several times when they were teammates at Plant High School in Tampa, so this is nothing new.

"He was breaking records left and right," Charles said. "After a while, we just started losing track of what he was doing, so it's amazing."

Despite the handwringing over Murray's up-and-down performances in some of Georgia's biggest games, the sophomore quarterback is still on pace for one of the most prolific passing seasons in school history. After throwing five touchdowns in last weekend's blowout win against New Mexico State, Murray is two scoring passes away from tying Matthew Stafford's single-season school record of 25.

"I think he's one of the best quarterbacks in our league, if not the best," Georgia coach Mark Richt said. "We're real pleased with Aaron."

Statistically, Richt might be correct.

Murray's 23 touchdown passes put him well ahead of the next closest SEC quarterback, Arkansas' Tyler Wilson (15), and he ranks behind only Wilson in passing yards per game (291.8 ypg to 228.9) and total offense (291.8 to 237.2.). Murray leads the conference in passing efficiency with a 151.3 rating.

That seems to contradict the notion that Murray is experiencing any sort of a sophomore slump.

"The numbers don't lie," receiver Michael Bennett said. "He's thrown a lot of touchdowns and for a lot of yards. He's just doing a really great job, I think, as a quarterback and as a leader of this team, and he's going to continue to do that."

Saturday's game against Auburn -- ranked 24th in this week's Associated Press poll and 20th in the BCS standings -- provides the opportunity for Murray to achieve another milestone. He has yet to defeat a ranked opponent as Georgia's quarterback, having gone 0-5 against ranked opposition -- an 0-3 mark last year and losses to Boise State and South Carolina to open this season.

Senior center Ben Jones didn't lay the blame for that unimpressive record at Murray's feet, however.

"We didn't beat hardly anybody last year. I think we went 6-7," Jones said. "So we didn't beat many ranked teams last year, and this year we started out with the ranked teams early, and we had a lot of young guys at the beginning of the year. I think those guys have matured now, and we're looking forward to this challenge against a ranked team, and maybe this will be his first one."

Murray is among the young guys who have matured.

He posted the most impressive numbers ever for a Georgia freshman quarterback last year, passing for 3,049 yards, 24 touchdowns, eight interceptions and nearly breaking former Bulldog Mike Bobo's season record for passing efficiency. And yet he admits his youth and inexperience prevented him from asserting himself as effectively as he would have liked.

Now in his third season on campus, Murray is more comfortable in his role as one of the team's leaders.

"My maturity level, understanding of the playbook, understanding of defenses and my knowledge of the game have definitely grown since last year," Murray said. "I'm just a lot calmer."

Of course it helps a quarterback develop as a leader when he is as obsessive as Murray is about preparation. Teammates simply shake their heads when discussing the time their quarterback spends in the film room.

"He was telling me the other day that he'd stayed in here watching film for five hours, and that's just something that I'm in awe of," Bennett said. "As a receiver, I'm just like, 'I don't know if I could ever do that for one day.' It's just something that you want to gravitate toward, and you really respect him for that."

That preparation has helped Murray progress in subtle ways that don't appear in a box score, said Bobo, now Georgia's offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach.

"I think he's playing a lot better than he did last year," Bobo said. "I think he's anticipating throws, he's doing a nice job, has a great command of the offense. I think we could've been more consistent at times. I still think we're a little bit erratic throwing the ball with our accuracy at times. But that's going to happen. We aren't going to go out there and hit every pass and complete every ball."

This season's Florida game was a good example, Bobo said.

Murray struggled at points against the Gators -- he finished 15-for-34 for 169 yards and completed less than 50 percent of his passes for the only time this season -- but the coaching staff and players still trusted him to make plays at crunch time.

"I told him, 'We're going to keep throwing it, and you're going to make some throws, and those guys are going to make plays for you,' " Bobo said, "which they did."

Murray delivered two fourth-down touchdown passes against Florida, and Bennett and Tavarres King made spectacular leaping catches over Gators defenders, igniting Georgia's comeback victory against its longtime nemesis.

Both throws came in high-risk, high-reward situations, where Georgia desperately needed six points after falling behind early. The Bulldogs cashed in both times, with Murray putting the ball on the money and the receivers making circus catches -- showing why Bobo feels increasingly comfortable putting the offense on Murray's shoulders.

The players feel the same way.

"I have all the faith in the world in Murray," Jones said. "He puts in the work every week, and I trust him more than anybody on the team."

David Ching covers University of Georgia sports for DawgNation. He can be reached at davidchingespn@gmail.com.