Clint Boling was tired of hearing the criticism.
Virtually every week there was something new. Injuries, lineup changes, starters being benched and backups getting their chance — Georgia’s offensive line was a carousel of question marks that showed no signs of slowing down, and Boling wanted to prove a point against Tennessee.
“We took this game as a challenge,” Boling said. “There had been some question marks with us switching around so much and us not being able to run the ball in the SEC. So we took this game as a challenge.”
It has been a season of development for the offensive line, but the past two games may have marked a turning point.
Against Alabama, Georgia found itself in such a deep second-half hole, the running game was abandoned altogether. Everyone in the stadium knew the Bulldogs were throwing the ball, yet the line held, and Matthew Stafford was sacked just once while completing 16-of-29 passes for 205 yards and two touchdowns in the final two quarters.
The second half against Tennessee on Saturday was far different. Instead of a frenzied comeback attempt, the Bulldogs wanted to run out the clock, and once again, there was no secret what the offensive game plan was.
“They knew we were going to run it; we knew we were going to run it,” Stafford said. “We were just trying to get first downs and keep our defense off the field to limit their chances of coming back. I challenged the guys up front, and they did a good job of making it happen.”
With nearly 14 minutes remaining in the game, and Georgia nursing a nine-point lead, the bruised and battered offensive line took over.
The Bulldogs bulldozed the Tennessee defensive front with a 17-play, 76-yard drive that featured 15 running plays and took nearly 11 minutes off the clock.
Combined with Georgia’s 97-yard drive in the two-minute drill before the half, head coach Mark Richt said the line’s performance Saturday showed the unit has turned a corner.
“I thought our offensive line grew up to a certain degree,” Richt said. “To have two drives like we had, to get out of the hole deep right before the half and that 10- or 11-minute drive was spectacular.”
The seeds for that growth had been planted against Alabama and reinforced throughout the two weeks leading up to the win over Tennessee.
Before the game, Richt spoke to the members of the line with a message.
“I talked to the line about how close they are to being a fine group,” Richt said. “I talked to them about how how last year’s group, right around this time of the year, grew up a little bit. We’re expecting that.”
A year ago, the offensive line was considered Georgia’s weakness, too. The Bulldogs started three freshmen -- Chris Davis, Trinton Sturdivant and Boling -- and experience was at a premium.
Offensive line coach Stacy Searels, however, had one big advantage: The unit was able to work together from spring drills through Georgia’s Sugar Bowl win in January. That hasn’t been the case this season.
In the preseason, Sturdivant went down with a season-ending knee injury. He was replaced in the starting lineup by Kiante Tripp, who was subsequently benched, then moved to tight end. Vince Vance took over for Tripp, but tore his ACL against Tennessee and will miss the rest of the season, too.
Boling, who was suspended for the first game of the season, has moved from right tackle to right guard to left tackle, where he is expected to start this week against Vanderbilt.
Cordy Glenn, a true freshman, started the first three games of the season at right guard before being benched. He’s likely to return to the starting lineup this week, possibly at left guard.
Justin Anderson, a redshirt freshman, struggled during the preseason but has worked his way into the starting lineup at right tackle, while true freshman Ben Jones has solidified the center job. Chris Davis, a starter at guard last year, has already played three different positions on the line this season.
This week, Georgia is expected to start two sophomores and three freshmen -- with three players at different positions than they had started a week earlier. At this point, change has been the one thing Georgia’s linemen can count on.
“It doesn’t matter what group we put out there,” Boling said. “If we start a whole other five guys, I think Coach Searels would expect big things out of them. I don’t think continuity has much to do with it.”
The line had the ability to succeed, and Boling said there was no lack of confidence. The missing ingredient was simply time -- time to get acclimated, time to learn the nuances of the game, time to jell.
And while the learning curve was a steep one with so many young players, the results promised to be equally dramatic.
“The improvement should be pretty significant for Cordy, for Bean (Anderson), for Ben Jones. Those guys are going to get better,” Richt said. “The good thing is they’re not true freshmen anymore. They’re six games into the season.”
In those six games, Georgia has allowed just eight sacks -- the same as the number of different players who have started games on the offensive line.
Consider the success amid so much chaos a product of Searels’ master plan. He doesn’t speak to the media, nor does he allow true freshmen to be quoted. He teaches his older linemen to say as little as possible, too. Last week, Boling’s only comments to the media involved some variation of the same refrain: “We’re excited to play Tennessee.”
For all the injuries, for all the position swaps, for all the lineup changes, the line has had a singular focus, and the turning point always seemed close.
“We are not far off at all,” Richt said before the Tennessee game. “I think any day now, any game now, we might really put a strong performance together, hopefully it will be this week.”
Richt’s words proved prophetic. Despite another major shakeup, despite playing against a fearsome front seven, Georgia’s offensive line finally put it altogether.
The next challenge, Boling said, is doing it again.
“We’ve done it once,” he said, “so I think the coaches are going to expect it out of us every time now.”