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Post Do the Dawgs have another Knoxville big play in them?

Thursday October 4, 2007

It’s obvious to the point of annoyance to say that special teams and turnovers can affect the outcome of a football game. No kidding. Still, no Georgia series this decade has turned on those elements of the game more than the Tennessee series. A quick look at Georgia’s three recent wins in Knoxville shows how a single return or turnover has completely reversed the direction of a game:

  • Damien Gary’s punt return touchdown in 2001 brought the Dawgs up off the mat after early struggles and set up a close second half (and of course the wild finish).
  • Tennessee was driving to take a halftime lead in 2003 before Sean Jones changed everything with his fumble return. Georgia scored four touchdowns in little more than a quarter and won 41-14.
  • The Vols had an interception return of their own to get back into the game in 2005, but Thomas Flowers got momentum back on Georgia’s side with his punt return.

Special teams and defense have even had extraordinary impacts in the Athens meetings. Boss Bailey’s field goal block in 2002 was the stuff of legends. Last season’s game was particularly wild. Kick returns, blocked punts, and turnovers dominated the second half.

Vol fans seem almost resigned that the special teams touchdown will make yet another appearance. When faced with a weakness, you have to ask whether or not you can exploit it. A team might rank 11th in the conference in run defense, but that stat does nothing for you if you can’t run the ball.

In the case of kickoff returns, Vol fans can probably sleep easy. Though Thomas Brown took one back against Tennessee last year, this year’s kickoff returns have been more or less impotent. The Dawgs are dragging the bottom of the SEC at around 20 yards per return. If anything, Tennessee has a better chance of breaking a kickoff return on the Dawgs.

Punt returns seem more promising. Mikey Henderson has had several decent returns of 10+ yards and has come thisclose to breaking a few of them. It will be interesting to see if Tennessee punts away from Henderson as the game goes on.

Turnovers were the tale in 2003 and 2006. Jones’ fumble recovery touched off a series of Tennessee turnovers that led to Georgia’s 41-point total. It was Georgia’s turn to be generous with the ball last year – the Dawgs started a disastrous trend of early second half turnovers that would haunt them for a month. Georgia had only one series in the entire game that didn’t end in a score or a turnover. The scores were mostly in the first half, and the turnovers did them in in the second half.

Expecting a game-changing turnover from Georgia might be asking a bit much. The Dawgs have tallied just four takeaways in five games. If there’s a promising sign, it’s that Georgia had a multiple-takeaway game last week for the first time this season, and even better news was that the Dawgs converted each of those turnovers against Ole Miss into touchdowns.

Will Tennessee feast on Georgia turnovers again? The Dawgs have been stingy to this point with only four giveaways – as many as they had in the second half of last year’s Tennessee game alone. It should be noted though that half of Georgia’s turnovers this season came in Georgia’s only other road game to date, and Alabama was able to convert both of those Stafford miscues into important scoring drives.

As much as I hate the trite "turnovers and special teams" analysis, it’s been the story of this series lately. With each team capable of winning the game, Georgia’s ability to value possession and get a big play from special teams or defense once again could turn the game in their favor.

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