ATHENS – To date, Isaac Nauta’s favorite play of his career was the block that sprung Sony Michel for the winning touchdown in Georgia’s overtime win over Oklahoma in the Rose Bowl. This one might top that.
The junior tight end from Buford scooped up a fumble by Georgia’s Jake Fromm on what was looking like a devastating third-down play and turned it into a 31-yard touchdown. The play – which actually covered 40 yards – came on the Bulldogs’ first offensive series in what would end as a 38-12 victory.
As it would turn out, that was one of only two times Nauta would touch the ball in Saturday’s game. He also had a 17-yard reception. But the alertness it took for Nauta to come up with the football, the instinct to see a route to the end zone and the athletic ability to get the ball there made it a highlight-reel play.
As it was, it gave the Bulldogs a 7-0 lead in the first quarter of a game in which points were hard to come by. Georgia would add only one field goal of the next 24 minutes of the first half.
Nauta bailed out the offense on what was looking like a poor first possession for Geogia. The Bulldogs had done well enough to reach Tennessee’s 32. But then Fromm faced third-and-9 and went back to pass.
Georgia was in maximum-protection mode, so Nauta’s role on this particular play was to handle Tennessee outside linebacker Darrell Taylor on the right side of the line. He didn’t.
The lightning-quick Taylor chose a wide trek, rushing straight up field and blowing past Nauta. Taylor didn’t hit Fromm, but he was able to swat the ball out of his hand just as he rared back to throw.
Nauta, nine yards deep in the backfield due to chasing Taylor, saw the play unfold before him. The ball happened to come back toward him, hit the turf right next to him and bounced straight up. Without hesitation, Nauta plucked it out of the air and never broke stride in getting from between the hash marks to the right sideline. He broke one tackle attempt and used a burst of speed to get into the clear. He was not significantly touched again until he broke the plane of the goal line.
Instead of a Georgia turnover and Tennessee possession, the Bulldogs had a one-touchdown lead. They were able to carry that momentum into the third quarter before letting the Vols back into the game.
It wasn’t a bad offensive day for the Bulldogs – they finished with 441 yards to Tennessee’s 209 – but they struggled at times to sustain drives in the first half. So being able to cash in on the first one proved valuable.
Meanwhile, Nauta continues to find ways to contribute for Georgia. His catch against Tennessee was just his eighth this season and gave him 89 yards on the year. But he’s on a much better pace than last season, when he had only nine catches for 114 yards all season.
As a freshman, Nauta had 29 catches for 361 yards and three touchdowns.