Get ready to see that one for the next 15 years or so.
For a while it seemed as if Georgia was going to get all the breaks. Tennessee had lost only one fumble all season, but the Dawgs were able to pounce both times the Vols put the ball on the ground in the first half. Even better, Jacob Eason was present enough to dive on Sony Michel’s fumble at the other end, and what could have been a tight 10-7 game turned into a promising 17-0 Georgia lead. A week ago it was dropped passes that put Tennessee in a hole against Florida. This week turnovers led to 10 of Georgia’s 17 points. But as Tennessee overcame the drops against Florida, they were able to begin finishing drives and even came up with a pivotal turnover of their own.
The turning point of the game was Tennessee’s drive at the end of the first half. Just as the Vols last season converted a series of fourth downs and then recovered a fumbled kickoff return to erase a 24-3 Georgia lead, Josh Dobbs made a series of plays on Saturday to avoid the first half shutout and give the Vols some life headed into the locker room. He started with a well-placed long pass to get the drive going. Lorenzo Carter’s first sack of the season seemed to stall the threat, but Dobbs scrambled on second and third down to move the chains after facing 2nd-and-22. The Vols then got a couple of breaks of their own as a pair of reviews led to a Georgia substitution penalty and then failed to overturn a Dobbs touchdown scramble. Tennessee was able to book-end halftime with a pair of scores, and that 17-0 edge had evaporated.
The numbers say that Georgia did a better job against Dobbs this year. He looked like a Heisman candidate in Knoxville a year ago torching the Dawgs for 312 passing yards and 118 more on the ground. Dobbs didn’t throw nearly as much in this game (26 attempts vs. 42), and his yards per attempt were similar when you exclude the final pass (and wouldn’t we like that?) A bigger difference came on the ground. Dobbs was limited to 26 rushing yards. There are some sacks and lost yardage figured in, but limiting the explosive plays both through the air and on the ground helped to keep the Vols from going on the types of scoring runs that blew open their Virginia Tech and Florida games. It hurts that the bulk of Dobbs’s rushing damage came on that one pre-halftime drive, and his longest run of the game (17 yards) was a key third down conversion that set up his touchdown run. Though the stats don’t really reflect it, his mobility was important on a number of big completions and helped him avoid several negative plays. It wasn’t the eye-opening box score of 2015, but it was a performance good enough to make a difference.
People who’ve been around the game much more than I have tell me that the players bounce back from games much more easily than fans do. I hope that’s true. It looked that way in this game – fans were generally pessimistic last week and there was a lot of orange peppered in among the red in the stands, but the Dawgs played as if they believed they could win. They took to heart Kirby Smart’s message that, following the Ole Miss disaster, “The silver lining is you get another opportunity to play a good team this week.” That’s to their credit: a lot of people, many in the Georgia camp, anticipated a similar result to the previous week.
So instead of humiliation, this week is about getting past heartbreak. It might have been easier to burn the tape and shake off a blowout loss: after a certain point the loss is so decisive that the score doesn’t really matter. But with a meaningful and hard-fought win so close and just seconds away, it’s going to be easy to dwell on the 1, 5, 20, or 30 things that made the difference in the outcome. Worse, Georgia went from the SEC East driver’s seat to a two-game disadvantage in a matter of seconds. With that goal slipping away, the focus will have to stay on winning the next game in a place where Georgia hasn’t won since 2008.
There’s another challenge this week that would be more obvious had Georgia won. The Dawgs looked better in many areas, and I was encouraged by the effort and attitude and execution I saw during much of the game. In fact, from my sampling of postgame reaction, that encouragement seems to be what a lot of us are taking from this game. Heartbreak for sure, but certainly not the raw antipathy that there was after the Ole Miss or even Nicholls games. It seems as if Georgia has played the two toughest teams on the schedule with only one more ranked opponent to go, and if what we saw against Tennessee is the starting point for the rest of the season, Georgia can win a lot of its remaining games. There’s a temptation after going toe-to-toe with the SEC East frontrunner to say that a corner has been turned. But as Smart put it following the Ole Miss game, “Humility is a week away.” There are enough problems across the board to keep any one unit from being satisfied with the progress made since Oxford. The job is to make sure that the effort and execution from this game is the baseline going forward and that there’s no regression back to the level of play we saw in September.
A few other things:
- After Eason’s interception, I thought the Dawgs managed the situation about as well as they could. When a single first down would have all but ended the game for the Vols, the defense did well to get over the shellshock of the interception and force a three-and-out. Smart took a calculated risk with the clock (more in another post), and it paid off. Eason had to be perfect when Georgia got the ball back, and he was. Not bad for a guy who wasn’t allowed to manage the end of a game in the first two contests.
- Every week it seems as if different players emerge. A lot of fans reached for their program to identify #92 Justin Young after an early QB pressure. Isaac Nauta is no stranger, but he had his breakout game. We’ve been waiting all season for Georgia to hit on a mismatch on a TE down the seam, and it was glorious. Jacob Eason’s first big completion at G-Day was to Riley Ridley, and Ridley has worked back from an injury to show that he can be a big play receiver in the future.
- Eason finished with 211 yards, but 81 of those came on the final drive. Another 50 came on the touchdown pass to Nauta. Eason’s 12 other completions produced a total of 80 yards of offense. We were joking that Nauta’s reception doubled Georgia’s passing production at the time, but it did. To his credit, Eason didn’t force many passes and accepted when the short route was open. Key receptions by Nauta and Ridley in the first half didn’t stretch the field, but they kept alive scoring drives. Eason wasn’t asked to throw it 55 times, and he got enough help from the running game to move the ball. When asked to play from behind, Eason had a rough series after Davis’s long return ending with an interception, but he bounced back like a pro with some very tough completions on what should have been the game-winning drive.
- The final throw to Ridley was remarkable for many reasons but most of all because the deep ball didn’t look in sync all game. Eason overthrew a couple and then underthrew an open McKenzie for a likely touchdown with 7 minutes left after Smith’s interception. McKenzie had to adjust and slow up, and that gave the defensive back a chance to make a nice play on the ball.
- Eason might catch some grief for making a business decision and avoiding a couple of blocks, but he threw his body at the loose Michel fumble in the endzone. It was good presence to stay with the play and a selfless moment to launch his 6’5″ frame at the ball on the ground. Eason’s toughest play might’ve been an 8-yard scramble on a 3rd-and-7 in the third quarter near midfield. Eason found some space, got a key block from Kublanow, and had to stumble the last two or three yards to move the chains.
- Jalen Hurd is a quality tailback, but Georgia has done a fairly good job against the UT tailbacks. Hurd has 122 yards on 31 carries in the past two games against Georgia. Alvin Kamara likewise has 70 yards on 23 carries in those games. Where the duo has hurt Georgia is receiving out of the backfield. Though they never reached the endzone on the ground, Kamara and Hurd combined for 4 receiving touchdowns against Georgia in 2015 and 2016. Hurd nearly added another before Deandre Baker’s timely hit.
- Jim Chaney came with the kitchen sink to scheme around Georgia’s offensive weaknesses. Apparently not one for continuing to bang his head against the wall, he mixed in a fair number of runs to the outside and used spread formations to create space for the running game. It didn’t always work, but it was much more effective than what we had been seeing. The spread-out defense occasionally left room for some big plays up the middle like Michel’s touchdown run and Nauta’s touchdown reception.
- You can pick from about a dozen special teams breakdowns, but this was a good illustration of the difference between the two teams: midway through the fourth quarter, Georgia’s punter placed a short kick inside the Tennessee five yard line. Two freshmen were in the area, but neither made the play to down the ball. The Vols had some breathing room after the touchback and were able to drive inside Georgia territory where they had to punt. Tennessee was able to down their short punt on the Georgia 6, and Eason was sacked and fumbled in the endzone two plays later. It’s just not good enough.