This is presented as an adjunct to the Georgia-Tennessee game column, which can be found here. Tennessee won 34-31, as you’ve doubtless heard.
ATHENS — I’ve been around a while. I’ve seen lots of stuff. I’ve seen games almost like this, but nothing exactly like it. Two 40-plus-yard touchdown passes inside the final 10 seconds. Try beating that.
The closest thing that comes to mind isn’t the Hobnail Boot or 70-X-Takeoff or the Prayer at Jordan-Hare, as stirring as all of the above were. The closest is a Georgia-Georgia Tech game, the result of which was one reason a different Georgia coach got to order up a shortish kickoff after his team took a late lead and lost.
Nov. 29, 20014: Malcolm Mitchell caught a 3-yard touchdown pass with 18 seconds remaining to put Georgia ahead 21-17. Mark Richt called for a squib kick. Tech took the ball at its 43. Justin Thomas scrambled for 21 yards. Harrison Butker sent it to overtime, where the Jackets prevailed, with a 53-yard field goal that mightn’t have been good from 54 yards.
Oct. 1, 2016: Riley Ridley caught a 43-yard touchdown pass from Jacob Eason with 10 seconds remaining. Georgia was penalized for excessive celebration, meaning that the Bulldogs had to kick off from the 20, not the 35. Kirby Smart ordered a “sky” kick — a bloop version of a squib. Evan Berry returned it 20 yards to the UGA 48. Georgia was offside on the kickoff, pushing Tennessee to the 43.
Four seconds remained, not enough time to throw a quick out and try a field goal. Joshua Dobbs had to sling into the end zone, and it’s easier to do that when you’re throwing from the opponent’s 43, as opposed to yours. Georgia deployed the 6-foot-6 linebacker Lorenzo Carter as the deepest of safeties. Six Bulldogs wound up in the end zone with four Tennessee receivers. Weight of numbers should have prevailed. It did not.
From the moment Dobbs’ pass began to descend, these eyes saw only two hands — those of Jauan Jennings, the 6-3 Tennessee wideout. He boxed out every Bulldog behind and rose to meet the ball. The weird part about this astonishment was that, seeing it live, it didn’t seem all that astonishing. There was no tip. This was as clean a catch as one receiver can make amid six defenders. (And Dobbs didn’t even have to roll out and buy time. He dropped back and threw.)
If Richt was wrong for kicking short in 2014 (and he was), his successor was wrong this time. Smart made it clear afterward that he’d gotten what he wanted, more or less, from the kickoff. (Complicating matters is that Georgia has no real kicker to boot it deep, especially not from the 20.) But here Tennessee outflanked the Bulldogs, ordering a return they hadn’t seen on film. Said Smart: “We thought they had their ‘hands’ team out there.”
They didn’t. This was something, according to Butch Jones, the Vols had been practicing but hadn’t gotten around to using. Berry took it on the left side and cut across field, taking six seconds. Time for one play. Dobbs and Jennings made that play.
Smart will have to live with Jennings’ catch, same as he had to live with Auburn’s Kick Six against Alabama in 2013. Sometimes the other guy is just better than your guys. But the decision to kick short — we stipulate that coaches are given to overthinking at such frazzled moments — is one he’ll have to review, and the two penalties in the final 10 seconds he’ll never forget.
“We pride ourselves on being disciplined,” he said. “You hate to learn a lesson like that.”
To ascribe this loss to coaching would be missing the bigger picture. Tennessee was the better team, and Georgia outplayed Tennessee. Said Smart: “We practiced physical and we played physical … We’re a good football team.”
In the first half, Georgia fell on every loose ball. (There were three; two of the recoveries either scored points or kept points from being scored. That was also reminiscent of the 2014 Tech game, which featured three fumbles at the 1-yard line.) That might have been a function of luck, but the cold truth is that the Bulldogs seemed to be playing harder than the Big Orange. Every Georgia runner — Nick Chubb had but one carry — finished his run, as coaches like to say. This was stirring stuff.
If there’s such a thing as an encouraging excruciating loss, this was it. Having two conference losses, one of them to Tennessee, makes it nigh-impossible for the Bulldogs to win the SEC East. (The Vols would have to lose three times, and they end with South Carolina, Kentucky, Missouri and Vanderbilt.) But Georgia showed itself and its coach something Saturday.
“We challenged them to play their best game today and a lot of them did it,” Smart said. “That’s a response I’m proud of.”
As wild as this finish was, as disappointing as the result was for Georgia and its fans, there’s something to be said about holding your own against a stronger team a week after being obliterated in Oxford. Georgia is not a great team. But it is, as Smart said, a good one. Given time, it will get better.
If memory serves, Mark Richt had two awful home losses in his first season here — against South Carolina and Auburn, both featuring goal-line foul-ups. The next year Georgia went 13-1 and won the SEC for the first time in two decades. Just sayin’.