ATHENS, Ga. - After getting sacked five times the first two weeks of this season, Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray announced at the team meal before the Florida Atlantic game that he would treat his offensive linemen to ice cream if they could keep defenders away.
That was all it took.
Murray never got sacked in Georgia's 56-20 whipping of the Owls, and he took the blame for holding the ball too long on his lone sack last week in the 48-3 drubbing of Vanderbilt. So for the past two Sunday nights at Ben & Jerry's, some of the biggest Bulldogs have feasted on cookie sundaes and milkshakes.
"It's motivated us," said Kenarious Gates, the 6-foot-5, 318-pound junior left tackle. "We're playing for each other, and you always have that ice cream in the back of your head."
Murray's sizzling start and the impact of freshman tailbacks Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall have headlined Georgia's record-setting offense entering Saturday's game against visiting Tennessee, but the linemen have assisted in the surge. Widely viewed as the weak link throughout the spring and summer, Georgia's front has fueled an attack averaging 287.5 passing yards, 242.5 rushing yards and an eye-popping 47.5 points a game.
Gates, junior left guard Dallas Lee, sophomore center David Andrews, junior right guard Chris Burnette and freshman right tackle John Theus have started all four games, with junior college transfer Mark Beard helping out when Lee sprained an ankle against Florida Atlantic.
"We've got five guys working hard together," offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said. "Theus was definitely a good addition for us, and Mark Beard coming in early helped him. If he hadn't come in early, he would not be near where he is today, because was lost in the spring.
"I've said from day one that it's a smart group that understands what we're trying to do offensively, and they're playing physically tough."
The offensive line became a concern as soon as center Ben Jones and tackles Cordy Glenn and Justin Anderson - a trio selected in April's NFL draft - played a final time in January's Outback Bowl. Jones and Glenn were four-year starters, and Gates was moved out from guard before spring practice to replace Glenn, a second-round pick of the Buffalo Bills.
When the Bulldogs put on pads for the first time in March, head coach Mark Richt said he and Bobo and offensive line coach Will Friend were trying not to look too depressed.
"If you had watched that and then to watch them today, the difference is unbelievable," Richt said. "The linemen knew we had some issues, and all summer long they decided as a group to get up at the crack of dawn and be the first ones there in the weight room. They worked extremely hard with our strength staff.
"Going against the defensive front they were going against day after day after day, they just had to get better or get embarrassed. They got better."
Senior receiver Tavarres King called those early spring practices "scary," and Andrews said it wasn't until the very end of spring that the line started "getting it together." Theus became the final starting piece in preseason camp, and the daily improvement was noticed and appreciated by all.
Even defensive coordinator Todd Grantham.
"We can run the ball out in the fourth quarter, and we don't have to play defense," he said with a smile. "That's good."
Friend had a successful first season last year, when the Bulldogs set a program record with 5,719 yards. The Bulldogs are on pace this season to rack up 7,420 should they play 14 games, and that would top the SEC-record 6,989 yards Auburn compiled two years ago with quarterback Cam Newton.
Last year's Georgia front was larger, but Friend is quite fond of what this year's bunch provides.
"We can do more with these guys," Friend said. "After being around me a year, they know what I'm getting at. Last year we relied so much on Ben, and this group as a whole has a better understanding."
Georgia's linemen are hoping for another Sunday night at Ben & Jerry's, and so is Murray, even if it's starting to get a little expensive.
"Sometimes I have to call my mom, because I put it on her credit card this past weekend," Murray said. "She's probably going to call and say, 'Aaron, why is there $50 or $60 for ice cream on my card?' I'm sure she wouldn't mind, though, because she appreciates what they do."
Said Andrews: "He knows we like it, and we know he doesn't like to get hit."