KNOXVILLE – He went down and you wanted to turn away.
He went down, grabbed his knee and was still laying there, writhing in pain, when the thought occurred, “This is going to look bad on replay.” Then you looked at a screen and saw it again, from a different angle, close up, slowed down and you turned away and thought, “I don’t want to see that again.”
This is how a season ends — probably for a player and for all intents and purposes for a team.
“As strong as Nick is, to see him just sit there was a shock,” Georgia wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell said. “It’s like, ‘OK, something’s wrong. Nick doesn’t lay down.”
If Georgia’s playoff hopes and the likelihood of an SEC championship were smothered last week by Alabama, what happened Saturday was a like a kick to the nether region. Running back Nick Chubb left the game suffering what appeared to be a serious knee injury on the first play from scrimmage. Georgia blew a 24-3 lead, was boat-raced by a previously struggling Tennessee team 35-7 for the remainder of the game and lost 38-31, as “Rocky Top” on loop blared from the speakers at Neyland Stadium.
After a 4-0 start with a seemingly high ceiling, Georgia has dropped consecutive conference games and has that Liberty Bowl look about them. Nothing against No. 2 running back Sony Michel or any other player, but results the rest of the season likely hinge largely on Chubb because, fact is, this too often looks like a mediocre team without him.
Georgia coach Mark Richt was non-committal about Chubb’s future after the game. He said the sophomore “was in pain, physical and mental pain.” But Richt added, “I really don’t know for sure. I’m optimistic it won’t require surgery. But I can’t say that 100 percent.”
If Chubb is done, it will be the second straight season that Georgia lost a Heisman Trophy candidate at running back, following Todd Gurley’s torn ACL a year ago.
Richt’s somewhat optimistic words aside, it looked gruesome Saturday. Dr. David Chao, a former NFL trainer, saw the replay and speculated on Twitter, “Multiligament tear. Worse than Todd Gurley last year.”
Chubb was given the ball on the first play from scrimmage. He took a handoff from Greyson Lambert at the Georgia 16, started his run up the middle, saw no room and cut left. He gained two yards before being hit by Tennessee cornerback Emmanuel Moseley and faced backward near the sideline, and then was hit again by linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin. The second hit spun Chubb around again and his left leg contorted and bent backwards.
Wishes and prayers streamed in on Twitter.
From Gurley: “Prayers for my boy Chubb. SMH.”
From Hershel Walker: “Keep your head up @NickChubb!!!”
From Marcus Lattimore, who was never the same after his horrific knee injury at South Carolina: “Praying for a clear conscience for the GREAT Nick Chubb. God doesn’t make mistakes.”
Chipper Jones, Tim Tebow and Marcus Spears were among those to share similar comments.
It was a while before medical personnel lifted up Chubb and carried him to the sideline and onto the training table. Several minutes later, when they attempted to load Chubb onto a cart so he could be carried off the field, he passed out and collapsed, according to a report by CBS sideline commentator Allie LaForce, then soon regained consciousness. He returned in the second half, watching from the sideline in sweats.
“He was trying to keep me up and I was trying to keep him up,” said Michel, who finished with 145 yards, including a 66-yarder, in Chubb’s absence.
Things tend to go horribly wrong for Georgia in Knoxville. The worst came last season. Even in scrambling to win 34-31 in overtime after blowing a lead, the Dogs lost running back Keith Marshall and wide receiver Justin-Scott Wesley to torn ACLs, as well as others to injuries. Coach Mark Richt hobbled into the post-game interview room with a bad knee and blood dripping from a cut finger after he got it pinched in a folding chair. “I don’t have much to say other than I’m thankful we won, and I’m thankful we’re leaving,” Richt said.
When he entered the same room Saturday, Richt said, “I’m not touching that chair.”
But the worst damage had been done. Without Chubb, Georgia’s offense mostly struggled for three quarters. They netted 15 yards on their first 11 plays. Even Georgia led 24-3, 14 points had come via linebacker Leonard Floyd’s 96-yard fumble return and Reggie Davis’s 70-yard punt return.
An implosion seemed inevitable, and it happened. Tennessee scored two touchdowns in 37 seconds late in the first half, one following a Michel fumble on a kickoff. The Volunteers scored four touchdowns in a span of five possessions. They shredded Georgia’s defense for 519 yards in offense.
The Dogs’ had one final chance to tie it with less than four minutes left but Davis dropped a would-be 56-yard touchdown pass. Tennessee celebrated.
“I have to make that play,” Davis said. “Then maybe we go to overtime or kick a field goal and win instead of me sitting here wishing I scored a touchdown.”
The rest of the season may be filled with more wishes than wins.