Last week we heard a lot about the 2004 Tennessee game as an example of what can happen to a team after a big win. As it turns out, everyone was off by a couple of years. For a while it felt a little bit like the 2006 game. Georgia, with Joe Tereshinski III under center, roared out to a 24-7 lead, and Georgia fans felt supremely confident in a defense that already had a pair of shutouts to its credit. The wheels started to come off on the second half kickoff. Thomas Brown’s return was stuffed at the 6. Two plays later, Tereshinski was picked off at the Georgia 19. The Vols outscored Georgia 37-9 in the second half with the help of four Georgia turnovers and a blocked punt. Georgia’s vaunted defensive ends Quentin Moses and Charles Johnson were non-factors. The Vols won 51-33 and became the second team in history to put up over 50 points in Sanford Stadium.
With about a minute to go in the second quarter last night, I wondered if we were heading for a similar result. Georgia’s explosive offense suddenly couldn’t get out from under its own goalposts. The celebrated defense offered paper-thin resistence against a short field. The Vols, left for dead and punting already down by 17, had scored three touchdowns and taken the lead in the blink of an eye. If there was a saving grace, it happened early enough that Georgia could snap out of its funk, regroup during halftime, and manage to get back on the right side of the lead in a few seconds.
Georgia’s mini-drive at the end of the first half accomplished much. If Georgia goes on to a successful season, this quick drive will be a big part of the story. On the most basic level, it evened the score. It also kept the team and fans from stewing over a steady eight minutes of complete negativity during halftime. More, it reminded the Georgia offense – and the Tennessee defense – that Georgia hadn’t built their initial lead with smoke and mirrors in a way the 2006 team might have. The same advantages and opportunities Georgia exploited early on were still there and would continue to lead to Georgia points into the second half. The storm had been weathered, but the possibility that Tennessee would fold was long gone.
- I feel bad for Olympic champion Shannon Vreeland. Georgia celebrated its Olympians during first quarter breaks. Vreeland’s turn just happened to be during the break following Tennessee’s pick six when the Sanford Stadium crowd was about as festive as a hospital waiting room.
- For a split second, it looked as if Cordarrelle Patterson’s drop in the second quarter might be the play we point to as a pivot. Instead of recovering from Bray’s interception on the previous series and chipping into the Georgia lead, the Vols, already in a 17-point hole, had to punt and give the ball back to a red-hot Georgia offense.
- It didn’t take long for another play to take the place of Patterson’s drop. Mitchell’s misread of a punt that should have been fair-caught around the 16 but instead rolled to the 1 started a reversal of fortunes from which a lot of Georgia teams wouldn’t have had the composure or the skill to recover.
- Mark Richt wasn’t just stubborn with Mitchell, he doubled down on his stubbornness by trotting Mitchell out to field the opening kickoff. The kick was returned to the 16. Mitchell has enough to do learning the defense and staying sharp on offense…I’m not sure what the rationale was to give him yet another responsibility when punt returns were already proving to be too much.
- It looks as if Richt is now finally content to make sure punt returns are neutral at worst. With an offense that has proven its ability to move the ball, that approach doesn’t look so bad anymore. Punt returns played such a big role in the Tennessee series during the 2000s – Gary, Flowers, and Henderson each took one back – that it’s a little unfortunate to see this game mark a resignation of sorts, but the problem has to be addressed.
- While we’re on special teams, a suggestion for a new approach: the team gets a few free shots at a personal foul after touchdowns to make sure that extra points are from at least 40 yards out.
- If there was a real surprise in the game, it was Tennessee’s ability to run the ball. Florida had bottled up the Vols for under 100 yards and around 3 YPC, and the Vol rushing game was seen as a nuisance that had to be taken care of while taking care of the bigger problems presented by the UT passing game. Nearly 200 yards on the ground and a back going over 100 yards individually had to be unexpected. In any game where the opponent doesn’t put up over 50 points, that kind of balance makes the Tennessee offense able to beat a lot of teams.
- The success Tennessee had on the ground went along with Georgia’s struggles to generate a pass rush. The Dawgs didn’t record a single sack. Bray was pressured a few times and was hurried occasionally, but it was nothing like what we saw at Missouri. The Tennessee offensive line deserves credit both for the pass protection and the success on the ground, but it should also worry Georgia.
- If Jarvis Jones was facing triple-teams and got the full attention of the Tennessee protection, there should have been opportunities for pressure even from Georgia’s base defense.
- So we come to the defensive ends. Defensive end in the 3-4 is a relatively anonymous position as the nose tackle and linebackers get most of he glory. But the ends have a very important job. They might not be the sack machines that you’d expect from an end in the 4-3, but you expect them to control their assigned gaps. What you can’t have is the offensive line moving aside these ends to free up blockers to take on the linebackers. You saw a lot of that on Saturday in the large holes Tennessee opened up in the middle. The nose tackle has been fairly decent, and Geathers led the team with two tackles for loss. But the defense needs more from (Abry) Jones and Washington. Garrison Smith earned more and more playing time as the game wore on and ended up with six tackles – more than Jones and Washington combined.
- With the preseason suspensions to defensive backs, the idea that Georgia would miss Brandon Boykin was front-and-center. But the absence of DeAngelo Tyson on the line this year seems very underrated.
- Georgia actually did a fair job against Bray by holding him to just over 50% accuracy and a so-so 6.2 yards per attempt. Georgia’s bigger problem against Bray was getting him off the field. The Vols converted over 50% of their third downs and wound up running 85 plays. The Dawgs are a below-average 9th in the SEC in third down defense, but even their typical 34.5% would have represented a major improvement against Tennessee. The defense can point to the short field in the first half, but the Vols started at best on their own 40 in the second half. Last season Mark Richt credited turnovers and “(being) effective at getting people off the field on third down” for the defense’s turnaround from 2010 to 2011. That will be a key indicator going forward, especially against an elusive quarterback like Connor Shaw who can scramble and move the chains when pass plays break down.
- Both Hunter and Patterson made plays in the passing game, but Georgia did fairly well at avoiding the big play from the Tennessee air attack. Branden Smith is fortunate that he’s not on the bad end of a Patterson highlight, but that was one of the few times there was a deep chance for Bray.
- But as is often the case with a productive offense, it’s usually a lot more than just a couple of guys who present a threat. Bray was able to find Rivera, Neal, and Rogers for a combined 14 receptions – a TE, RB, and third WR were able to find success against the Georgia defense.
- Credit to Patterson for being a complete enough player to present as much, if not more, of a threat running the ball than catching it. His touchdown run was something out of nothing – Georgia had covered the receivers perfectly on a trick play, and Patterson was forced to improvise.
- With little help from an overly-conservative offense, the defense had to shut the door on three consecutive drives at the end. With all else that had not worked quite right earlier in the game, they came through with three turnovers. Though Ogletree and Rambo made some plays while working through the rust, Sanders Commings made the most of his return to cornerback.
- Georgia’s offense, brilliant as it was for much of the game, just couldn’t help returning to its ineffective late pattern of obvious runs from the shotgun leading to long third downs and, more often than not, giving the ball right back to the opponent after three plays. I’m probably not the only one who flashed back to the exact same scenario at the end of last season’s Vanderbilt game. Wooten hanging on to his third down drop would have likely ended things much sooner, but isn’t that the right time to have Mitchell – perhaps your most reliable receiver – running that route?