ATHENS — A national audience looking in, SEC championship stakes on the line and a capacity Georgia football crowd provided too big of a moment for Tennessee to handle on Saturday.
Coach Josh Heupel indicated as much in his postgame comments following the Bulldogs’ 27-13 win over the Vols in the historic battle of No. 1-ranked teams at Sanford Stadium.
“There are things that we’ll learn from tonight,” Heupel said after the game, per the 247Sports transcript. “As a program, you’ve got to understand what you’re getting yourself into and the atmosphere and the energy you’re going to get from everybody — not just for their program, but from their fans, too.
“The emotional part of the football game, (we) had to be able to settle into it early in the game. We did not do that in a positive way.”
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Tennessee jumped to a 3-0 lead with a 16-yard drive that set up a 47-yard field goal, but that only seemed to bring more urgency — and more noise — to Vince Dooley field six days after the iconic Georgia legend passed away.
Georgia responded to the rare home deficit by scoring three touchdowns in succession, taking a 21-3 lead and command of the game.
Heupel said coming into the game he felt Tennessee could handle a hostile environment at Georgia, but after the game, he admitted that was not the case.
“Offensively early in the football game the false starts (and) the communication issues hurt us,” Heupel said.
“I didn’t think, all in all, we handled the noise very well. That’s false starts. It’s being in sync, communication up front.”
Tennessee had six false starts, an illegal procedure and Heisman Trophy candidate Hendon Hooker was sacked six times.
Georgia coach Kirby Smart said crowd noise absolutely affected the game as the Vols’ offensive line could not get a jump off the snap.
“You can’t account for that point-2 seconds of get off,” Smart said. “That changes the rush.”
The crowd impact was reminiscent of Georgia’s 23-17 win over Notre Dame in a Top 10 battle of teams in 2019, when the Irish had six false starts and burned three timeouts to avoid delay of game penalties on account of crowd noise.
Tennessee outscored UGA 7-3 in the second half, with the Bulldogs going more conservative over the final 30 minutes with a three-score lead and rain coming down.
Heupel said he was honest with his team after the game.
“Be real about what happened tonight …. and the energy and the type of environment and competitive arena that you’re in,” Heupel said. “As a program, on the road, we’ve got to grow and be able to handle that in a much better way than we did tonight.
“It’s not that our guys didn’t prepare well, but just being within ourselves during the early part of a game, in particular, to change the way the game plays and learn from that.”