ATHENS — Jordan Jenkins, a grizzled veteran, four-year starter and outspoken leader for the Georgia Bulldogs, has a way of summing things up nicely. And though he’s extremely eloquent, he didn’t have to be regarding his team’s last trip to Vanderbilt in 2013.
“It just really sucked,” the senior outside linebacker said this week.
He’s referring, of course, to the Bulldogs’ 31-27 loss to the Commodores in October of 2013. It was a truly devastating loss in both the context of how it happened and what it meant to Georgia’s season.
“My memory is a cold game, a lot of emotional calls and a long ride home,” Jenkins said. “Definitely not one of the high moments of my life.”
Georgia arrived at Vanderbilt Stadium a double-digit favorite with two losses on its ledger. But it also showed up without a lot of its best players.
Tailbacks Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall were both out with injuries. So was wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell. And two weeks earlier, the Bulldogs had lost receivers Justin Scott-Wesley and Michael Bennett to knee injuries.
So they went in with true freshmen Brendan Douglas and J.J. Green carrying the load at tailback, and an extremely conservative offensive game plan.
Georgia knew it was going to have to deal with that. What the Bulldogs didn’t know was the unforeseen obstacles they would have to overcome that cold, wet day.
Defensive end Ray Drew was ejected for a targeting foul for a high hit on the quarterback in the first half. Then linebacker Ramik Wilson was flagged for the same penalty on what turned out to be the pivotal play in the fourth quarter.
His hit on receiver Jonathan Krause over the middle resulted in an incompletion and apparent fourth-down stop. But while he wasn’t ejected, the penalty gave the Commodores a first down in Georgia territory, and they went on to score what turned out to be the go-ahead touchdown.
“There were a lot of things that happened that were regrettable,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “… I think the targeting rules changed probably because of that day, because of the outcome of that game.”
Indeed, the officiating crew that worked that game was disciplined afterward and the targeting rule was re-written the next year to waive the automatic-yardage penalty. But that wasn’t the only reason Georgia lost the game.
In fact, the list of fundamental breakdowns that occurred en route to defeat is mind-boggling.
- Muffed a punt return.
- Failed to field a punt snap.
- Gave up a fake punt.
- Gave up a fake field goal for a touchdown.
“‘Preciate you reminding me of all those things,” Richt sighed.
Said Douglas, who fumbled on the Bulldogs’ last possession: “It was a crazy game. It definitely wasn’t our best game overall. We weren’t really ready to play, I don’t think.”
Occasional struggles at Vanderbilt Stadium are not unusual for Georgia, which has otherwise dominated the series (54-19-2). Some very good Vince Dooley teams lost and tied there in the early 1980s, Ray Goff’s talented 1991 squad fell in Nashville and Richt’s teams have struggled in Vanderbilt Stadium in recent years.
Three of the last four games in Nashville have been decided by five or fewer points.
“Vanderbilt has always been able to compete with Georgia, especially here in Nashville,” Commodores coach Derek Mason said.
Said Richt: “That’s something we’ve got to work on; we’ve got to solve. We’ve got to play better at Vanderbilt than we have been, and that’s one of our big challenges. … We just haven’t played extremely well there.”
That’s the thing about this year’s trip: Georgia will be neither physically limited nor emotionally unprepared.
The SEC’s newest round of scheduling has moved the game from its traditional slot of mid-October, between Tennessee and Florida contests, to early September. So not only should the Bulldogs be hyper-focused on their SEC opener, they’ll also be essentially full strength from a physical standpoint.
Receiver Malcolm Mitchell and tailback Keith Marshall will be playing in Vanderbilt Stadium for the first time. So will running backs Nick Chubb, Sony Michel and Douglas. With the exception of receiver Justin Scott-Wesley (knee), they arrive in Music City with their top 44 players pretty much intact.
Meanwhile, the memories of what took place in this game just 23 months ago remain fresh on the minds of Georgia’s upperclassmen.
“I’ll definitely say something to the team, but it’s nothing to harp on,” senior tackle John Theus said. “Those are experiences we can learn from, so I’ll bring it up. But anything can happen on any Saturday. People can get hurt, stuff can happen, calls can go your way or not go your way. But ultimately we still had a chance to win that game. So it’s up to you and what you do.”