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Post Georgia 41 – Tennessee 17: Achievement unlocked

Wednesday November 17, 2021

Before the season I wrote that “most (all, really) of Georgia’s interesting games will happen away from Sanford Stadium.” That was wrong of course – Arkansas and Kentucky were top 10 teams when they visited Athens. Some big moments did happen on the road though. Whatever Clemson has become, that win started Georgia on the path to a perfect regular season. The Florida game was a necessary statement after last season’s loss and wrapped up the SEC East title. Georgia’s games at Auburn and Tennessee took the Bulldogs into the most hostile environments they’d see all season, and they’d face two first-year coaches looking for a high-profile win. The Auburn game was a matter-of-fact win that brought Auburn back to earth and validated Georgia’s strong start.

It’s to Josh Huepel’s credit that Tennessee, even at 5-4, had people eying this game with interest this late in the season. Tennessee handed Kentucky their lone home loss of the season. They played even with Alabama for three quarters. Wild finish aside, they were in a toss-up game with Ole Miss. The Vols weren’t the pushover they had been, and everyone seemed curious to see how Georgia’s dominant defense would handle a Tennessee offense that seemed to have wind behind it.

They handled it well. Only another meaningless late score kept the final from looking like a lot of other Georgia games this season. The offense asked the most of Stetson Bennett that it had all season, and he delivered. James Cook outscored the Tennessee team. The result wrapped up a perfect 8-0 SEC record for Georgia, its first unbeaten conference mark in nearly 40 years. The result also seemed to be the last significant roadblock between Georgia and an undefeated regular season. Georgia’s methodical push to 8-0 with no SEC opponent coming closer than 17 points suggests that even bigger accomplishments could be ahead of this team.

As I kept hearing about the challenge Georgia would face against Tennessee’s up-tempo offense, I was reminded of Gus Malzahn’s Auburn offenses. Malzahn brought his hurry-up, no-huddle offense to the SEC in 2009 as a coordinator and again in 2013 as a head coach. That didn’t mean a wide-open Air Raid scheme; Malzahn’s teams often had dominant running games. Tempo, along with a lot of pre-snap motion and window dressing, were the distinguishing features.

It always seemed to take a couple of possessions for a Georgia defense to get comfortable with Auburn’s tempo. In ten games between 2009 and 2018 with Malzahn either as coordinator or coach, Auburn scored a touchdown on their first possession six times. They got a field goal on their first possession twice. In the other two games where they didn’t score on the first possession, they still managed a first quarter touchdown. Even though Georgia took firm control of the series over the past decade, Malzahn’s tempo almost always caused problems early on until Georgia could settle in.

Josh Huepel’s offense is a bit different from Malzahn’s, and the UCF community has noticed those contrasts. If anything, Heupel places an even greater emphasis on tempo above scheme. It’s more important to get a play off and perhaps catch the defense misaligned than it is to get into an optimal play. It’s largely been effective: Tennessee has weathered a lot of turmoil and turnover during the past year and should find themselves in a bowl in Heupel’s first season. Coming into this game they had scored at least 14 first quarter points in four of their six SEC games to date (including Alabama.)

It seemed as if even the mighty Georgia defense would have problems with this offense. Tennessee’s first three possessions featured two long drives. Only a key third down stop that forced a field goal prevented the Vols from once again reaching that 14-point mark in the first quarter. Georgia had the poise and the resources to make adjustments and stopped the scoring with a dominant second quarter. Once again the defense changed the game with an interception that allowed Georgia to take the lead for good.

The Tennessee offense was just one of the challenges faced and overcome by the defense. The 70-man travel roster was strained by a flu outbreak and a rash of minor injuries. Kirby Smart and Dan Lanning had to be resourceful with their personnel. Christopher Smith slid down to star after Brini struggled, and Dan Jackson stepped in at safety. With Adam Anderson unavailable, the three interior linebackers – Walker, Tindall, and Dean – were shifted around as needed to tremendous effect. Dean tallied 11 tackles, 2 TFL, and a sack. His most impressive play might’ve been a pass breakup on which his timing and instincts were indistinguishable from those of a defensive back. Tindall had eight tackles and three sacks. He single-handedly ended a Tennessee scoring opportunity by sprinting at the Tennessee quarterback and forcing a fumble recovered by Travon Walker. Regardless of position, Georgia’s defenders made play after play to keep Tennessee off the scoreboard after their initial flurry.

With all of the focus on Tennessee’s offense, you might be excused for forgetting that Georgia would occasionally get the ball too. The Vols had given up big numbers to Pitt, Alabama, and Kentucky among others, and the nature of Tennessee’s offense put their defense back on the field for an awful lot of plays. Georgia only ran 70 plays in this game but enjoyed a five-minute possession advantage. That advantage only materialized in the second half. Tennessee had the lion’s share of possession and plays for much of the first half until Kendrick’s interception allowed Georgia to “break serve.”

The Georgia offense, like the defense, faced its own personnel challenges. The offensive line was already without Salyer. Ericson was limited by the bug going around the team. Broderick Jones and Xavier Truss filled in. It was a shaky first half for the line – Bennett was under pressure, and the running game was inconsistent. The staff made some adjustments – Bennett threw a little more than he had before, Georgia took fewer shots downfield than usual, and James Cook’s versatility came into play. Within these adjustments, though, the offense never pressed or got outside of its comfort zone. The Dawgs faced their biggest deficit of the season before the offense took the field, but the offense came up with a big answer after Tennessee’s opening salvo. Georgia had managed a total of only 10 first quarter points in their previous four games. Stetson Bennett scrambled for a key third down conversion near midfield, and James Cook finished off the drive with an explosive touchdown run. Tennessee led 10-7 after the first quarter, but the defense made sure that things never got out of hand. Once the offense settled in with 17 second quarter points, Georgia was well on their way to a win.

  • It’s incorrect to say that Stetson Bennett hasn’t grown and developed as a quarterback. That’s inevitable when you start the majority of games. He’s making fewer poor decisions and now is even keeping his head up to find open receivers when he decides to run. That said, the growing acceptance of Bennett as the starter has more to do with coming to grips with what he can and can’t do and with the realization that, on the whole, it seems to be working. I wrote last week how the available receivers and the state of the offensive line are among the many variables that tilted the scales in Bennett’s favor. Now that an offensive identity has formed and flourished around Bennett, it’s going to be tough to make a change.
  • Very glad to see Bennett slide later in the game rather than take another hit. His style of play lends itself to taking some pounding, but he should understand now that his role on the team is important enough to avoid contact when he can.
  • Kendricks’ interception was a big moment, but I think the play of the game was three plays later. Georgia faced 3rd-and-9 just outside of field goal range. Bennett got outstanding protection, stepped up into the pocket, and found McConkey open across the middle. Coming up short there would have wasted the interception and given Tennessee a big shot in the arm with the score still tied 10-10. Instead Bennett soon scrambled into the endzone on a busted play-action play. Georgia moved out in front and never looked back.
  • Georgia did have a chance to stop Tennessee before their opening drive really got going. The Dawgs forced a 3rd-and-5, but Robert Beal got caught inside and Hooker just did get past a diving Quay Walker to earn a first down.
  • The willingness of officials to call pass interference will be an important variable in the postseason. Opponents have learned that downfield shots are one of the few chances they have against this defense. We’ve seen the Georgia defensive backs be aggressive with their hands – sometimes too aggressive. Some of the calls at Tennessee were questionable, and we’d be foolish to expect the correct call every time.
  • Christopher Smith’s move to star was effective, and Dan Jackson held his own at safety. That adjustment made me think of Tykee Smith and how he might have contributed in exactly that situation.
  • Third downs remain the weakness in Bennett’s leadership of the offense. Tennessee’s defense is among the bottom 10 nationally on third downs, and Georgia struggled to take advantage. The Bulldogs were 5-for-12 on third downs against an opponent that allowed teams to convert almost 48% of third downs. Georgia did pick good moments to move the chains. I mentioned the big third down play after the interception. Bennett had two third down completions to Adonai Mitchell that sustained the back-breaking scoring drive before halftime. Bennett also had a third down scramble on Georgia’s opening scoring drive. Good things happened when Georgia converted third downs, but those conversions were infrequent enough to keep Tennessee in the game for most of the first half.
  • Cook was the offense’s star, but Mitchell had a season-high five receptions. He made some difficult catches in big moments that enabled Georgia’s long drive before halftime.
  • As shaky as the offensive line was in the first half, Georgia still ended up with 274 rushing yards and 6.7 yards per carry. Cook was the second Georgia back this year to reach 100 yards on the ground, and even Bowers added to the total with an explosive end around that we hadn’t seen since the Vanderbilt game.
  • I wondered after the Auburn game whether the Tigers were a little too quick with their decisions to go for it on fourth down. Tennessee faced a 4th and 4 from the Georgia 17 early in the third quarter down 24-10. A field goal there stops the bleeding and perhaps gets the crowd back into the game after 17 straight Georgia points. Instead the Vols came up empty and the Dawgs began a 13-play drive that sucked five minutes off the clock. Georgia’s field goal made it a three-possession game at 27-10 with less than 20 minutes remaining in the game. Field goals won’t beat Georgia, but two straight Tennessee possessions in the third quarter ended on downs, and that had to have been demoralizing.

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