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Post Georgia 27 – Tennessee 13: Slingin’ in the rain

Tuesday November 8, 2022

It’s a painful memory, but most of us remember the 2015 Alabama game. A top ten Georgia team was humiliated by Alabama as the Tide shook off an early loss to Ole Miss and used the Georgia game to regroup for a run at the 2015 national title. A key moment came in the third quarter when a steady rain increased in intensity to a tropical downpour. Much of the Sanford Stadium crowd decided they’d seen enough and abandoned the hopeless game en masse. If we want to reach a little, it was also when fans began to realize the wide gulf that existed between their program and title contenders like Alabama. As they left the stadium many also left behind their confidence in the leadership of the program.

Seven years later it was Georgia’s turn to make a statement in a big game at Sanford Stadium. While last season’s national title was the payoff for the changes made after that 2015 season, Saturday’s win over Tennessee was evidence in support of Kirby Smart’s longer-term vision for the program. “We built a program to be sustained,” he claimed over the summer. “This program was built to be here for a long time.” Faced with a challenge for its division crown and place as a playoff contender, Georgia rose to the occasion. The talent advantage built through years of sustained elite recruiting was evident. Coaches deployed that talent in ways that attacked Tennessee’s shortcomings to neutralize what the Volunteers did best. Teams that aim to beat Georgia either have to match their talent level (and only a handful come close) or gain an advantage through coaching and scheme. Many believed Tennessee had that scheme advantage with their outstanding offense, but the Bulldogs were ready with a defensive game plan that was executed to near perfection.

Even the Georgia crowd understood that it had a role and delivered perhaps the best home environment experienced at Sanford Stadium. The crowd. Georgia fans, fresh off a rivalry win in Jacksonville, regrouped with plenty of energy for the highest-ranked home matchup in decades. Fans were in place early and vocal from the start. Tennessee had two false start penalties on their opening drive, and it continued all day. Erik Ainge might have been right at one time: Georgia did have a frustrating reputation for a muted home crowd. But that claim hasn’t been true for a while. Fans have answered Kirby Smart’s call since his first spring game, and the confidence that the Dawgs will deliver in big home games keeps them coming back. Even another downpour was on Georgia’s side this time. As the skies opened in the third quarter, a raucous crowd only grew more resolute and impactful as the Georgia defense stood its ground on multiple fourth down attempts.

The rain didn’t chase Georgia fans this time. A satisfied and jubilant crowd was slow to leave the stadium after the win. The rain had ended, the skies were clearing, and Georgia was back on top. There was no cause to storm the field after toppling #1; the Bulldogs had simply reclaimed what was theirs. But the Dawgs also understand the work involved in staying on top, and this win – while impressive and historic – only earns Georgia the right to keep it going for another week.

The next couple of weeks will be a strong test of maturity for the young Georgia team. It’s one thing to play with a chip on your shoulder in front of a frenzied home crowd. No one is disrespecting Georgia or its players now. They’ll be ranked at the top and celebrated as much as Tennessee was entering the game. The slights are getting fewer and fewer without venturing into the absurd for motivation. Georgia now has to take their #1 ranking back on the road for their final two SEC games, and we know how unpleasant the last true road game was for the Bulldogs. Kirby Smart will have to keep the team focused on how these games fit into the season’s larger objectives. The Tennessee win keeps Georgia in control of its goals but clinched nothing. The importance of taking a 12-0 record into the postseason is the message now, and that starts with beating some decent SEC teams in their stadiums.

Rather than trying to pick out one or two big moments from a monumental game, it might be better just to walk through the game.

  • Holding Tennessee to an opening field goal. Tennessee is known for their quick starts. They took less than two minutes to score on Alabama and led 21-7 after a quarter. They recovered a turnover on the opening kickoff at LSU and put the game away early. Even last year they led Georgia after the first quarter before Georgia took control of the game. So when Tennessee’s first possession began near midfield after a Georgia fumble, it wasn’t ideal. Quickly we saw two themes emerge. First, Georgia was effective at forcing Tennessee to move the ball in small chunks. The Vols completed five passes but none went for more than seven yards. Second, Tennessee got behind the chains on two false start penalties as the home crowd became involved. The Vols scored first, but a field goal wasn’t the worst outcome after giving Tennessee a short field.
  • Welcome back Arian Smith. Tennessee’s big play offense was the toast of the nation entering the game and the force that propelled them to #1. Meanwhile Georgia’s missing deep threat at receiver had been an unfortunate footnote for a Bulldog offense that was otherwise extremely efficient. Arian Smith’s gradual return to the lineup hadn’t yielded much fruit until Bennett uncorked a 52-yard bomb to the speedy receiver to open Georgia’s second possession. It was the longest reception by a Georgia wide receiver this season, and it would come to represent the Georgia offense flipping the script on a perceived weakness. While the Georgia defense did its best to limit the Tennessee deep threat, Georgia completed three passes – two of which went to receivers – longer than any Tennessee reception. Bennett took two more deep shots to Smith, and one probably should have been caught. Georgia rediscovering a vertical element to its passing game is an exciting development for the last third of the season.
  • Run, Stetson, run. I wrote last season about the theory “that Stetson Bennett needs a good QB run to get going.” It was a bit tongue-in-cheek, but Georgia scored on four out of six possessions after Bennett scrambled and dove at the pylon in the first quarter. It’s not that he wasn’t on target before his run (the long pass to Arian Smith was outstanding), but Bennett was in complete command in the final 20 minutes of the first half. The wheel route to McIntosh, the long touchdown to McConkey, and the perfectly-placed strike to Rosemy-Jacksaint were all examples of Bennett playing at a level that earned him brief Heisman chatter after the Oregon and South Carolina games.
  • Complementary football. Georgia’s first possession after their opening score didn’t go well. Edwards was tackled for a loss. Bennett and Blaylock miscommunicated on a third-down pass that ended up behind the sure-handed receiver, and the Dawgs were unable to build on their lead. Punter Brett Thorson quickly reignited the crowd with an improbable 75-yard punt that rolled out of bounds at the Tennessee 1. With the big special teams play in hand, the Georgia defense took over and pinned the Volunteer offense against their own goal line. Jalen Carter fought into the backfield and forced a fumble (and what should have been a safety), but a short punt out of the endzone turned out to be damaging enough. Bennett found McConkey on the next play for a 37-yard touchdown, and Georgia led 14-3. Special teams leading to defense leading to offense is about as complete of a team score as it gets.
  • Jalen Carter. The depth of talent built through recruiting gives Georgia a big advantage, but let’s not kid ourselves about the importance of individual superstar talent. Jalen Carter has fortunately been able to return from a knee injury suffered at Missouri. He had a limited but active role on third down plays against Florida. His role increased against Tennessee, and so did his impact. Carter looked very much like a projected high first round pick and tallied four tackles, two tackles for loss, the sack in the endzone, and also forced two fumbles. His presence isn’t just about his stats; he changes the identity of the defense. Georgia’s overall defensive pressure has gone to another level over the past two games as Carter becomes healthier and more involved.
  • Georgia’s defensive backs. Georgia’s cornerbacks hadn’t intercepted a pass this season. We saw a communication issue lead to a long Florida touchdown a week ago, and that was a cause for concern: Tennessee’s tempo, formations, and personnel are designed to cause confusion and get receivers open for big plays. Beyond that Tennessee’s receivers are big and physical, and a broken tackle could easily lead to a big play when the defensive backs are isolated in man coverage. Bulldog defensive backs were excellent on both counts: most Tennessee passes were completed in front of Georgia defenders, and those defenders made the tackle. It wasn’t perfect – Volunteer receivers got beyond the coverage a handful of times, but the Georgia pressure was effective enough to force errant throws. The result was an astonishingly-low 5.9 yards per attempt for a Tennessee quarterback who had built a Heisman-quality highlight reel of big pass plays. Ringo and Lassiter fought all afternoon with those large receivers and were among the team’s leaders in tackles. Ringo’s interception was a textbook example of coverage and kept Tennessee from stealing points just before halftime. Bullard has emerged as a physical presence at star, and his second half sacks off of brilliant pressure calls ignited the crowd. Finally, Starks – thrown into the fire as a true freshman against a complex passing attack – was magnificent and ended up leading the team in tackles. Georgia’s commitment to pressure placed these defensive backs in do-or-die situations for much of the game, and they had their best showing of the season.
  • 11 plays, 25 yards. Georgia had a pretty fresh memory of how fast a large halftime lead can evaporate. Tennessee came out in the second half needing a score, and they had some early success moving the ball on their first drive of the second half. But as with their first possession of the game, they were unable to break any play longer than a 9-yard designed run by Hooker. When Tennessee crossed midfield, the Dawgs increased their pressure. Sacks by Dumas-Johnson and Brinson drove the Vols back to midfield and forced a punt. Without big plays Tennessee was unable to sustain the drive and took five minutes off the clock. That situation would come up again later in the game.
  • The death march drive. Any hopes Tennessee had of a quick response to begin the second half were squashed as Georgia went on a 15-play drive that ate up nearly nine minutes of clock. It’s a cliché that the best way to slow a high-performing offense is to keep it on the sideline, but that’s exactly how Georgia approached its third quarter offense with a decent lead and the weather turning bad. Most of the plays on this drive were small gains on the ground, but two key third down passes to McConkey kept the drive going. With the offense able to chew clock with small gains, there wasn’t much need to take chances downfield in the passing game. Even McConkey’s big 23-yard reception was a safe screen pass. Once Georgia got into field goal range, they finished the drive with three more runs that ate another two minutes. Podlesny’s field goal capped off the drive and gave Georgia a three-touchdown lead with only 16 minutes left in the game.
  • When it rains, it pours. As Georgia put the screws to the Tennessee defense in the third quarter, a steady rain drenched the stadium. That affected Georgia’s playcalling as the Dawgs were content to keep things close to the vest and protect the ball. Eventually both teams traded fumbles at the end of the third quarter. The rain didn’t diminish the crowd’s volume or influence. The crowd was stirred into a frenzy by the two sacks early in the quarter. The slightest hint of the fourth quarter light show was enough to keep the party going in the stands. As Tennessee’s desperation increased in the fourth quarter, the crowd only got louder with more false start penalties and the success of Georgia’s pass rush.
  • One last stand. Tennessee did get into the endzone later in the game, but I think coming up short on their first drive of the fourth quarter settled the outcome. It was another long drive that took 14 plays and over 6 minutes that came up empty. Combined with their first drive of the second half, that’s two drives totaling 25 plays that cost 11 minutes with nothing to show for it. That’s a killer outcome for a team trying to come back from two and three possessions down. It was on this drive that the crowd was at its loudest, and the Georgia defense gave them plenty to yell about. Georgia’s defensive coaches unleashed their most intense pressure of the game, and the Dawgs recorded sacks on three straight plays. Only an unfortunate facemask penalty by Jalon Walker (mistakenly attributed to Mykel Williams) gave the Vols new life. That setback didn’t take much out of the pressure or the crowd as the Vols approached Sanford’s east endzone. Another Javon Bullard sack put the Vols in a 4th-and-long situation, and Hooker’s futile fourth down pass sailed out of bounds.
  • Taking a knee. Georgia had consecutive three-and-outs surrounding Tennessee’s lone touchdown. The drives served their purpose by milking another three minutes, but you sensed that Kirby Smart expected better blocking and execution. They even attempted a deep pass to Arian Smith as a knockout blow, but Smith couldn’t complete the catch. The Dawgs did gain a first down on their final possession on a tough run by Edwards and didn’t have to give the ball back. A Tennessee comeback at that point would have taken a miracle, but you never want to give that opportunity to an explosive offense. Ending the game in the victory formation was the perfect way to finish off the (former) #1 team.

Some final notes from a day we’ll remember for a long time:

  • It wasn’t a huge day for the Georgia running game. They were more effective on the ground than a Tennessee offense that’s been surprisingly productive running the ball. The Tennessee rushing defense is also surprisingly stout, yielding under 3 yards per carry. It’s on the back end where the Tennessee defense has been most vulnerable, and that’s where Stetson Bennett did his damage getting over 10 yards per attempt.
  • Tennessee’s 2-for-14 on third downs says a lot about Georgia’s defensive success on early downs. Every decent preview of the game noted how adept Tennessee has been at staying ahead of schedule and avoiding long third down situations. Georgia, through pressure and penalties, knocked the Volunteer offense off balance enough to slow the tempo and give the crowd time to affect those third down plays.
  • It might not have shown in the rushing stats, but the Georgia offensive line was solid in pass protection. Tennessee didn’t record a sack, and Bennett had plenty of time to take deep shots. Even on an instance when Tennessee got a shot at Bennett, the downfield blocking was good enough to give Bennett a path to scramble to the endzone. Devin Willock held his own in his first start at guard.
  • Darnell Washington’s the guy you want curling himself around an onside kick, isn’t he? Not too many people are going to separate him from the ball.
  • Thorson’s punt was the special teams story, but it was another steady day for Podlesny apart from the bank shot extra point. His two field goals provided important margin (how different does the game feel at 21-13?), and nailing a 38-yard field goal in the driving rain to give Georgia a three touchdown lead was a huge play by the entire placekicking operation.
  • It wasn’t a huge day for the tight ends, but blocking doesn’t show up on the stat sheet. The tight ends helped keep Bennett upright and allowed the backs to grind out some tough yards against a difficult defensive front. Washington couldn’t quite pull in a catchable touchdown pass.
  • This was Georgia fourth game of the last six with multiple turnovers. It didn’t especially cost them in this game. and they were able to draw even against the team leading the SEC in turnover margin. If there’s an area to clean up heading into some road games against upset-minded teams, it’s ball security.
  • You wonder if Georgia could have turned the offense back on if Tennessee were able to draw closer in the second or third quarters. They managed to do so against Florida, but fortunately the defense made it a non-issue.

On a day with the #1 ranking, the SEC East, and a repeat playoff appearance on the line everything aligned for Georgia. The offense took early control. The defense was suffocating. Even special teams had its big moments. The homefield advantage, as Smart put it, was again “elite.” It wasn’t by chance for everything to come together in a big game – that’s what the program is designed to do.

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