ATHENS — Two out of three ain’t bad. Georgia is certainly not complaining.
Aaron Murray threw four touchdown passes, including a 25-yarder to Justin Scott-Wesley with 1:47 remaining, and the No. 9 Bulldogs rallied to beat No. 6 LSU 44-41 in a thrilling game between Southeastern Conference powerhouses Saturday.
The Bulldogs (3-1, 2-0 SEC) completed their opening-month run through a gauntlet of top teams with a victory that propelled them back into the thick of the national championship race.
“We’ve played some hard teams,” Scott-Wesley said. “It just shows we’re a great team. We can handle anything anybody throws at us.”
Georgia was only the fourth team since the BCS began in 1998 to face three top 10 teams in the first four games of a season. The Bulldogs opened with a 38-35 non-conference loss to Clemson, but came back to beat South Carolina 41-30 and now the Tigers.
“We’ve grown up a lot this past month,” Murray said. “I think everyone in the nation knows what Georgia football is about now. We’re a tough group of guys. We’re fighters.”
About 10 minutes after the game, the team ran back on the field to celebrate with their fans along the famed hedges at Sanford Stadium. Coach Mark Richt gave his wife a big kiss and hug.
“I’m just honored to be a part of something like that,” Richt said.
Now, the Bulldogs are well-positioned to make a run for their third straight SEC East title and trip to the conference championship game.
“We’re definitely happy,” Murray said. “If had to lose one of these games, obviously Clemson was the one, just because they’re in the ACC. Not saying we wanted to lose. Don’t get me wrong. But this is huge.”
LSU (4-1, 1-1) got a career-best 372 yards passing from former Georgia quarterback Zach Mettenberger in his return to Athens, and the Tigers went ahead 41-37 on Jeremy Hill’s 8-yard touchdown run with 4:14 to go.
But that was plenty of time for Murray and the high-powered Bulldogs on a day when neither defense had much success.
He completed three straight passes to quickly move the Bulldogs into LSU territory, and freshman J.J. Green broke off an 18-yard run to the Tigers’ 25. Then it was Scott-Wesley, breaking wide open behind the secondary to haul in a pass and tiptoe just inside the pylon for the winning score.
“We have a long road ahead of us to get back to the top,” Mettenberger said. “We have to win out.”
Murray ran for Georgia’s other touchdown on a sneak and finished with 298 yards passing.
“We all know your quarterback has to play well to win a game like this,” Richt said. “Aaron was phenomenal, gutsy, tremendous.”
Murray and Mettenberger were in the same recruiting class at Georgia, contending for the starting job in the spring of 2010. Mettenberger, a native of nearby Watkinsville, grew up cheering for the Bulldogs and dreaming of the day he could wear the red and black.
But his actions off the field cost him his chance.
Mettenberger pleaded guilty to misdemeanor sexual battery charges after an incident in a bar and was kicked off the team. But his ties to Georgia run deep — most notably, his mother, Tammy, still works in football operations for the Bulldogs. Richt gave her the week off because of all the attention surrounding her son.
The former teammates did all that could be expected of them.
Mettenberger had three touchdowns on 23-of-37 passing, continually burning the Bulldogs on third down. He completed a 25-yard pass on Odell Beckham on third-and-22 to improbably extend an LSU drive that led to Hill’s go-ahead touchdown.
But Murray delivered the final blow.
“They are both great players,” Richt said. “It was incredible how well they played.”
Georgia did plenty of damage on the ground in the first half, but star running back Todd Gurley sustained an apparent left ankle injury on a 25-yard run. He didn’t return, watching the second half while wearing a windbreaker and walking boot. Richt wasn’t sure how long he’ll be out.
The Bulldogs weren’t nearly as effective on the ground with Keith Marshall handling the load, but Murray and his receivers took up the slack. Chris Conley had five catches for 112 yards and a touchdown. Michael Bennett hauled in a pair of scoring passes.
Georgia finished with 494 yards, though the bulk of those came in a back-and-forth first half that ended with Georgia on top 24-17.
Little-used Kadron Boone had two early touchdown catches for LSU, but Jarvis Landry turned out to be Mettenberger’s go-to receiver. The junior had 10 catches for 156 yards, including a 39-yard touchdown that tied the game at 27 late in the third quarter.
Georgia’s schedule gets easier the rest of the way, with only one more regular-season game against a team currently in the Top 25 — injury-plagued Florida.
LSU has a much tougher road, with games still remaining against top-ranked Alabama and No. 10 Texas A&M.
“We have a good football team and we have everything in front of us,” Tiger coach Les Miles said. “When you play a quality team on the road, you can learn what needs to be corrected.”