Hail Mary plays a focal point for both Georgia, Tennessee

Georgia-Tennessee-hail mary
Tennessee's Jauan Jennings (15) outjumps Dominick Sanders (24) and a host of other Bulldogs to haul in the game winner as time expired on Oct. 1, 2016..

ATHENS – Every day.

That’s how often Lamont Gaillard says he thinks about the ending of Georgia’s 2016 game against Tennessee.

“That plays over in my mind every day,” said Gaillard, a junior and Georgia’s starting center. “I think about it every day.”

Turn off your computer or simply skip the next couple of paragraphs if you don’t want to read about it again, because we’re compelled to recount the ending of the game.

Georgia took a 31-28 lead on Tennessee with 10 seconds remaining when Riley Ridley hauled in Jacob Eason’s bomb down the left sideline for a 47-yard touchdown. It looked as if the Bulldogs had pulled out a stunning victory in what already had been a dramatic back-and-forth game. The Sanford Stadium crowd was going bonkers.

So were the UGA players. But during the ensuing celebration, reserve defensive back Rico McGraw left the sideline and went into the end zone to participate in the jubilation – without his helmet. McGraw was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct.

The penalty was assessed on the ensuing kickoff, meaning Georgia kicked off from its own 20 rather than the 35. The Volunteers took over at the Bulldogs’ 43 after UGA was flagged for being offsides on the kickoff. That left Tennessee with 6 seconds, which was just enough time for quarterback Joshua Dobbs to lob a Hail Mary pass to Jauan Jennings, who was remarkably open in front of several Georgia defenders in the end zone to secure a 34-31 win over the Bulldogs.

It made for one of the most drastic 10-second turnarounds in the history of college football ― certainly in Georgia annals at Sanford Stadium.

Fast forward to today, and the No. 7-ranked Bulldogs (4-0, 1-0 SEC) are about to see Tennessee for the first time since. The teams will meet Saturday at 3:30 p.m. at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tenn.

Neither of the Vols’ principal parties ― quarterback Josh Dobbs or receiver Jennings ― will be a part of the game Saturday. The Pittsburgh Steelers selected Dobbs in the fourth round of the 2017 NFL Draft; Jennings is out with a dislocated wrist. Still, it’s fresh in everybody’s minds.

“Anytime you watch SEC Network, they like to play it up there, as far as the highlights for the last year,” senior defensive back Aaron Davis said. “But we’ve moved past that.”

But the Bulldogs haven’t forgotten about it. Coach Kirby Smart makes it a point that they don’t.

Georgia actually watches that play on videotape every Thursday. That’s they day reserved every week for specialty plays, such as throwing a Hail Mary, defending a Hail Mary, onside kicks, fake field goals and such.

The Bulldogs have gone over the Hail Mary almost every week since the ball fell into Jennings’ arms on Oct. 1, 2016. The aim, of course, is that it doesn’t happen again.

“Every Thursday we go over that play and the play before that play,” Smart said at his weekly news conference on Monday. “That’s what you do on Thursday. Every college in America works on Hail Marys and those kinds of plays. You try to execute the best you can. More important than that is the discipline to stay on the sideline and keep your helmet on. So you have to execute prior to that so it doesn’t come down to that.

“That play was a factor, but there were a bunch of plays in that game that were a factor. Our motivation is about us and trying to get better.”

While every team works on those plays, they don’t always execute them. Georgia worked on them before Tennessee struck gold on the Hail Mary. And Tennessee worked on it before the Florida Gators beat them on a last-second pass two weeks ago.

The difference in that play and the one the Bulldogs allowed was Georgia’s defense of the Tennessee Hail Mary was conceptually correct, just poorly executed. The Volunteers gave up a 63-yard, game-winning pass to Florida as time expired by rushing four and not dropping their safety into a three-deep prevent defense. That allowed Gators’ receiver Tyrie Cleveland to outrun Tennessee’s only defensive back on that side of the field. Florida won 26-20.

So fittingly, perhaps, the Vols have gotten a taste of their own medicine since the 2016 game in Athens.

But that doesn’t have the Bulldogs feeling any better about what happened a year ago.

“No,” Gaillard said tersely. “Just because it’s Tennessee. I don’t like losing to them.”

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