Friday May 27th, 2016 6:35AM

Georgia's Richt says Gurley 'real close' to return

By The Associated Press
ATHENS -- Georgia coach Mark Richt said Sunday tailback Todd Gurley is "real close" to returning from sprained left ankle.

Gurley has missed two straight games, including the Bulldogs' 41-26 loss to Missouri on Saturday that dropped Georgia eight spots to No. 15 in The Associated Press Top 25.

The loss left Georgia (4-2, 3-1 Southeastern Conference) needing a quick recovery when it plays at Vanderbilt this week. Gurley could help Georgia stay close to the top of the SEC East race, but Richt said he'll make sure the sophomore is fully recovered from the injury.

"I think what we want is a really healthy Todd Gurley," Richt said. "We want him to be at his best. We don't want him to go in there without being full speed because if you do it's not really safe for him. It also can cause another setback that might set him down even longer.

"Whenever he looks healthy enough and feels healthy enough, we'll play him."

Gurley leads Georgia with 450 yards rushing and four touchdowns in four games. He had 1,385 yards rushing and 17 touchdowns as a freshman.

Richt wouldn't say if Gurley's injury is a high ankle sprain. "I'll say this: He's close. He's real close," Richt said.

The Bulldogs have lost their other top tailback, Keith Marshall, and wide receivers Malcolm Mitchell and Justin Scott-Wesley to season-ending knee injuries. Another top receiver, Michael Bennett, missed the Missouri game following arthroscopic knee surgery and isn't expected to play this week.

Freshmen J.J. Green and Brendan Douglas combined to run for 157 yards against the Tigers. Douglas led the Bulldogs with six receptions for 43 yards, including a 7-yard touchdown catch.

Georgia was hurt by four turnovers in its first home loss since 2011, including two interceptions and a lost fumble by quarterback Aaron Murray.

The final score seemed to indicate another disastrous performance by the defense, which began the day last in the SEC with its average of 32.2 points allowed. A closer look reveals blame should be shared.

Punter Collin Barber was replaced after averaging only 32 yards on two punts. Barber had a 30-yard punt on the first play of the second quarter that put the defense in a difficult starting spot near midfield. A 52-yard touchdown drive gave Missouri a 14-7 lead.

The defense couldn't be blamed for Missouri defensive end Michael Sam's 21-yard return for a touchdown on a recovery of Murray's fumble later in the second quarter. The poor punt and the Murray's fumble helped Missouri lead 28-10 at halftime.

"The halftime score, you can't just sit there and say the 18-point deficit was just how our defense played," Richt said after the game. "It was partially how our defense played and partially because how the offense played."

Murray's second interception of the game set up an easy 33-yard touchdown drive for the Tigers late in the game. After the throw, Murray pounded his fists into the turf in frustration.

The usually poised Murray acknowledged he didn't make good decisions on his two interceptions. Murray played as if affected by the injuries which took so many playmakers away from the offense, and the big deficit may have added to the pressure.

"We missed too many opportunities and the turnovers killed us," Murray said. "We can't give away the ball like we did and win a game like that. Both picks were forced throws trying to put the ball into tight spots where I probably should have checked down."

Richt said it was "a little bit" of a surprise to see Murray try to force the passes, especially after Georgia cut Missouri's lead to 28-26 early in the fourth quarter.

"We got the point differential reduced to where we didn't have to force anything," Richt said. "We got it back to where we could just take what they give us and sometimes you try to make something more out of a play than you should."

Richt said Murray's confidence could have been hurt by having new starters at receiver and tailback.

"It's not the same, obviously, when you get used to working with some guys all summer long and all spring and then you're in essence breaking in some new players," Richt said. "It takes a little time for everybody to get used to each other and have the confidence and faith that everybody knows what they're doing. If there's a missed assignment along the way, it can probably make you wonder a little bit."
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