Kirby Smart’s Georgia Bulldogs got off to another slow start Saturday night in Knoxville, especially on defense, before finally shutting down a feisty Tennessee offense and reeling off 33 unanswered points to take a convincing SEC road win.
Anxiety ran high for a while among some of Bulldog Nation, with fans alarmed by the way the Vols’ first-time starter at quarterback, freshman Brian Maurer, seemed to be having his way with the Georgia pass defense, amassing 205 passing yards in the first half.
The Vols announced they were going to make a game of it with a 73-yard touchdown bomb after Georgia’s first, rather methodical scoring drive.
The Dawgs had to settle for a field goal from Mr. Reliable, Rodrigo Blankenship, on their next drive of the game, after a Lawrence Cager TD catch was waved off for offensive pass interference.
That didn’t make Georgia fans feel any better, especially after Maurer went right back to work, completing a number of those short-to-medium completions that the UGA defense has allowed all season. The second Tennessee TD drive also was helped along by a really dumb and needless roughing-the-passer infraction.
The Dawgs trailing 14-10 to a team that lost to Georgia State had the orange checkerboard crowd at Neyland Stadium going bonkers, as Larry Munson might have said, and Georgia fans fretting, even after another Blankenship field goal made it 14-13.
Still, the more sanguine elements of the UGA fan base looked at unflappable Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm, who was his usual efficient self, and figured that, once the Dawgs got on track, it wouldn’t be much of a game.
They were right.
Fromm set the tone for the Dawgs’ offense in the first half, completing 16 of 20 passes for 195 yards and 2 TDs as the Bulldogs tallied 354 yards of total offense on 42 plays.
The Dawgs took back control of the game in the final 4 minutes of the half, reclaiming the lead with 1:59 remaining on a 6-play, 60-yard TD drive capped off by one of Fromm’s patented back-shoulder throws to Miami transfer Cager, who appears to have become the QB’s favorite target.
The Vols missed a field goal attempt and then Georgia got the ball back at its own 30 with 59 clicks left on the clock. That’s when Fromm reminded everyone that he’s probably the nation’s best 2-minute-offense QB, quickly leading the Dawgs downfield, ending in a 7-yard TD pass to freshman receiver George Pickens. Georgia was stopped on a 2-point conversion try, but the 26-14 halftime lead felt pretty comfortable.
The Georgia defense gave up a season-high 239 yards in the first half, but it was a different story in the second half. Whether it was true halftime adjustments by the Dawgs’ D, or just people executing properly, as Smart indicated to Chuck Dowdle of the Bulldogs radio network after the game, the Vols were held to just 15 yards of total offense in the third quarter (only 1 yard rushing), and just 104 yards total in the second half, 70 of those coming on a final futile drive against Georgia reserves when Tennessee had 1st-and-goal at the Dawgs’ 5-yard line and still couldn’t score!
The Dawgs offense, meanwhile, couldn’t get out of its own way much of the third quarter, with Georgia’s first drive of the second half derailed by a couple of penalties, ending in a punt. The second drive also saw a couple more penalties and resulted in another Blankenship field goal. (The officiating crew, which had to swap out referees at halftime due to injury, seemed to think it was getting paid by the flag, but also, as Smart told Dowdle, Georgia “had some dumb penalties that cost us.”)
On the Dawgs’ third drive of the second half, they turned the ball over on downs after D’Andre Swift was held to 1 yard on 3rd-and-2 and got nothing on 4th-and1, indicating that Georgia still has short-yardage concerns. (Considering that, earlier on that drive, freshman back Zamir “Zeus” White had peeled off runs of 10, 17 and 8 yards, you had to wonder if maybe he shouldn’t have been the one to carry the ball on the fourth-down play.)
In the fourth quarter, a drive that nicely balanced the running and passing games was punctuated by a Brian Herrien TD.
Meanwhile, the defense made amends for the first half by constantly harassing Maurer (and, on a few plays, former Tennessee starter Jarrett Guarantano), allowing just 68 passing yards. (The Vols basically had no running game against the Dawgs.)
Georgia safety Richard LeCounte, who had been burned badly on the Vols’ long TD in the first half, bounced back to snag an interception (though the ensuing drive produced no points), and, in the fourth quarter, sophomore defensive back Eric Stokes put a strip-sack on Maurer, with linebacker Tae Crowder scooping the fumble up and returning it 60 yards for the Dawgs’ final touchdown.
Offensively, Georgia never really opened it up the way Smart had hinted they might, but the Dawgs did rack up 526 yards of total offense. Fromm wound up the day completing 24 of 29 passes for 288 yards and 2 TDs. His completion percentage now is an astounding 77.4. While the failures on short-yardage plays continue to be a concern, the Georgia offensive line had a great day protecting Fromm in the passing game.
Cager led the Georgia receivers (with 5 catches for 58 yards and 1 TD), followed by tailback D’Andre Swift (4-for-72 yards). Fromm completed passes to nine different Bulldogs.
In the running game, the Dawgs tallied 159 yards on the ground in the first half and finished the game with 241 yards on 39 attempts (averaging 6.2 yards per run). Herrien led the team with 11 carries for 88 yards (including a 40-yarder on which he broke numerous tackles) and a TD. Swift had 17 carries for 72 yards and a TD to go with his receiving yards. White averaged 8.1 yards per run while Herrien averaged 8 yards and Swift averaged 4.2.
The Georgia defense ended the night with 3 sacks, two of them by redshirt freshman Azeez Ojulari. LeCounte and defensive back Mark Webb tied for the team lead with five tackles apiece.
On special teams, Blankenship continues to provide the Georgia offense with a safety net (hitting on all his PATs and all three of his field goal attempts, including a 50-yarder), but the punting game is still erratic. Jake Camarda did have a 53-yarder, but he also shanked another one for just 18 yards. That inconsistency could hurt the Dawgs big down the road.
Overall, after the Vols’ early bomb, which Smart characterized as a “punch in the mouth,” the Georgia head coach thought his team did a pretty good job of bouncing back.
“We didn’t start the way we wanted tonight, especially not defensively,” he said. “But, offensively, I thought Jake did a really nice job and [Offensive Coordinator James] Coley called a really nice game and changed some things up.”
Still, there are things to fix, including the short-yardage game, the penalties, pass coverage and punting. If Georgia played against an elite team the way they played early on against Tennessee, they might find themselves in too big a hole to recover.
As Smart summed up, “We’ve got to keep getting better. We’ve got to get rid of some of the errors.”