It didn’t take long for Mark Richt to turn the clock back eight years when he talked about his team’s mental state for this Saturday’s game against Tennessee. The 2004 Dawgs were feeling pretty good about themselves after a 45-16 demolition of Nick Saban’s defending national champion LSU team a week earlier. Georgia, after unspectacular wins over South Carolina and Marshall, finally looked like the team that was ranked a consensus #3 entering the 2004 season.
NOTE: If you want to dig deeper into this game, it’s posted in its entirety on YouTube.
Tennessee’s outlook couldn’t have been more different. They were coming off a humiliating 34-10 home loss to Auburn. Freshman quarterback Erik Ainge looked his age and had been responsible for five turnovers. The Vols were still a very good team and came in ranked in the top 20, but now they had to take a freshman quarterback on the road for the first time and face the #3 team that was fresh off a near-flawless evisceration of LSU.
Of course Tennessee shocked the Dawgs 19-14 on a frustrating day for the Georgia offense. The same Georgia offense that passed for five touchdowns a week earlier managed just 265 yards of total offense. It was Georgia’s senior quarterback who looked like the rookie, throwing 15-of-34 and not finding the endzone once. David Greene was able to exploit the outside vulnerabilities against Saban’s LSU defense, but Tennessee defensive coordinator John Chavis used more zone to frustrate Greene and get the Georgia offense off the field.
It ended up being the game that decided the SEC East: both teams would lose to Auburn during the regular season, and Tennessee avoided any additional stumbles en route to a 7-1 conference record and a spot in the SEC Championship. Georgia’s stellar senior class saw its 17-game home winning streak broken and would not take its third straight SEC East title.
That 2004 game is useful for Richt not just as a warning that “we better get our minds right” all over again. It also shows some very basic areas of the game that can go wrong and lead to a tough afternoon for a favorite. Georgia took care of the basics last week against Vanderbilt, and the underdogs didn’t have the talent to stay in the game without help from Georgia. Here’s a breakdown of what went wrong in 2004:
- No credible rushing threat. The 2004 Dawgs had an average SEC rushing attack with 156.8 YPG placing them squarely in the middle of the pack. The Vols held Georgia to 100 yards below average – just 56 rushing yards. With the running game bottled up and Greene under pressure, Georgia was forced into longer second and third down situations and threw the ball 40 times in the game. Tennessee’s success against the run let Chavis drop defenders into his zone coverage, and Georgia had a tough time sustaining anything.
- Protection issues. Along with difficulty establishing the run, the line also struggled in pass protection. The same hurries, knockdowns, and sacks that plagued Georgia’s line in 2003 returned for this game. Georgia’s net rushing yardage included the lost yardage from 5 sacks of David Greene. Several of his incompletions were intentional as he avoided pressure. A promising drive to start the third quarter ended with a grounding penalty after Tennessee covered a planned screen pass.
- Penalties. In a loss like this, you can usually find examples of a team shooting itself in the foot. Georgia was whistled for 12 penalties in the game which cost them 82 yards. Against LSU a week earlier, Georgia was flagged only once. That yardage total doesn’t tell the story though: the biggest penalty of the day was a holding call during a Bryan McClendon kickoff return after Tennessee had gone up 13-7. McClendon’s return brought the ball to the Tennessee 2-yard line. Thanks to the holding call, Georgia started from their own 20.
- Slow start on both sides of the ball. It was 10-0 Tennessee before Georgia managed a first down. The Dawgs managed just seven first quarter yards. Georgia’s strong defense saw two blown coverages by its safeties result in two big third down conversions and a touchdown on Tennessee’s opening drive. The defense more or less settled down after the first quarter, but the offense never really got going after its slow start.
- Special teams. The unforgettable play from this game was the attempted fake punt in the third quarter. In hindsight, of course it was a bad decision. At that point in the game, Georgia was stuck in neutral. It’s possible that the drive would have stalled out on the next set of downs even if Tereshinski had moved the chains. It’s hard to call it a turning point when the Vols led from start to finish, but the failed attempt and the resulting Tennessee scoring drive completely changed the approach to the fourth quarter.
- Squandered opportunities. There was another special teams miscue that cost the Dawgs points. Georgia recovered a Tennessee fumble on the Vol 13-yard line and had a chance to take the lead with a touchdown. The Dawgs managed just one yard on the next three plays with a short run and two incompletions. To top it off, Andy Bailey shanked a 29-yard chip shot of a field goal that would have at least moved Georgia to within three points. Tennessee then went on a 10-play drive that ate up much of the third quarter. Georgia’s next possession ended with the fake punt, and it’s very likely that frustration over the failure of the previous drive led to the decision.