“This is one they’ll be talking about a long time.”
That was Kirby Smart winding up his locker room chat with DJ Shockley of the Bulldogs radio network Saturday after his Dawgs had vanquished this year’s media darling, the Tennessee Vols, by a score of 27-13 in college football’s latest “game of the century.”
Smart’s team, coming off yet another win in Jacksonville, had been ranked No. 1 most of the season in the Associated Press and USA Today/Coaches polls, but the Dawgs came into Saturday’s game in Athens determined to prove a point after the committee that votes on the College Football Playoff rankings put them in third place, behind Tennessee and Ohio State.
But, with the Vols’ nation-leading, high-tempo offense stymied by the Dawgs’ defense most of the day, Georgia also removed any doubt at all about who is the real No. 1 team in college football at this point of the season, while beating Tennessee for the sixth consecutive time.
The Sanford Stadium crowd was a big factor in the game. (Jason Getz/AJC)
Likewise, the Bulldogs fans who packed Sanford Stadium — and remained till the end, even after it started raining and the Dawgs had the game well in hand — also seemed determined to prove a point. Vols fans and one of their former quarterbacks had talked trash in the week before the game, dismissing Sanford as not that loud and not intimidating.
The faithful in red and black lustily proved otherwise, as the Vols were flagged 7 times for false starts due to the din created by the Athens crowd. Afterward, there was debate among Georgia fans over whether Saturday’s game was the loudest in anyone’s memory (some thought it didn’t quite equal the 2013 wins over LSU and South Carolina). Suffice it to say it was plenty loud enough, with the decibel level registering above 127 several times.
“These fans are elite,” Smart told CBS’ Jenny Dell on the field right after the game.
“I didn’t think, all in all, we handled the noise very well,” Vols head coach Josh Heupel conceded.
Vols wide receiver Jalin Hyatt was a bit more to the point: “The crowd noise was effective. Sometimes, we could not hear the snap or the play call ... I give credit to the fans. That would probably be the biggest thing that got us today.”
Well, Georgia’s defense had a little something to do with the Vols’ troubles, too.
Defensive lineman Jalen Carter causes a fumble by Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker. (Jason Getz/AJC)
Coming into the game, Vols QB Hendon Hooker, considered the front-runner for this year’s Heisman Trophy, was leading a Tennessee offense that many had been comparing with LSU’s 2019 team. The Vols, known for a fast-paced, prolific attack that often gets off 3 plays per minute, were averaging 49.4 points and 553 yards of total offense per game.
However, Georgia’s defenders, missing an injured Nolan Smith but led up front by a gloriously healthy Jalen Carter, harassed Hooker all day, sacking him a season-high 6 times and exerting enough pressure on other plays that he overthrew open receivers several times. Meanwhile, Georgia’s pass coverage mostly held up.
For the day, freshman Malaki Starks had a team-best and career-high 10 tackles, while Kelee Ringo and Javon Bullard had 7 tackles each. The 13 points scored by the Vols was their lowest total under second-year coach Heupel. Also, Tennessee was just 2-of-14 (14%) on 3rd-down attempts, though they did convert 3 times on 4th-down.
The Vols finished the day with 289 yards of total offense on 75 plays, much of it late in the game when it no longer really mattered.
UT quarterback Hendon Hooker is sacked by the Dawgs’ Javon Bullard. (Jason Getz/AJC)
Although Georgia’s offense spent most of the second half eating up clock with relatively conservative play calls, the Dawgs finished with 387 yards on 62 plays — 306 of them accrued in the first half on the way to a 24-6 lead at intermission. Georgia got 130 yards of its total on the ground and 257 yards through the air.
Kenny McIntosh led Dawgs runners, with 52 net yards on 10 carries (he also caught 2 passes for 57 yards), while Daijun Edwards had 46 net yards on 16 carries. Ladd McConkey led Georgia receivers with 5 catches for 94 yards and a TD, with Brock Bowers catching 3 passes for 27 yards and Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint having 3 receptions for 20 yards and 1 TD.
QB Stetson Bennett had a good day, completing 17 of 25 passes for 257 yards and 2 TDs, and he also scored on a 13-yard touchdown run that started Georgia’s scoring and set the tone for the first half, which is when most of the highlights for Georgia fans took place.
Although the Dawgs fumbled the ball away on the game’s first possession, they quickly got on track after the very aggressive Georgia defense held the Vols to a field goal.
Ladd McConkey catches a touchdown pass against the Vols. (Hyosub Shin/AJC)
On the ensuing drive by the Dawgs, Bennett completed a 52-yard pass to speedy wideout Arian Smith, finally back from injury. The Georgia QB capped off the drive by scrambling and then taking off for the right corner of the end zone, where he successfully dove for the pylon.
The two teams then traded punts, with Georgia definitely getting the better of it as Aussie kicker Brett Thorson boomed one that went 75 yards before bouncing out of bounds at the UT 1-yard line. The punt tied for the 10th longest ever for the Dawgs and was the longest since Drew Butler’s 75-yarder against Oklahoma State in 2009.
With the Vols facing 3rd down at the 5, Georgia’s Carter stripped the ball out of Hooker’s hand in the end zone. A UT lineman picked up the loose ball and officials ruled that he managed to get out of the end zone to avoid a safety, though video clearly showed otherwise. (It was just one of several awful calls that the refs blew Saturday.)
After the Vols punted, Georgia started its next drive at the Tennessee 37, and, on first down, Bennett threw a home run pass to McConkey with 3:32 left to play in the first quarter. It wasn’t long before the Dawgs struck again on a drive that featured a 49-yard completion to McIntosh on the wheel route. The drive culminated with Bennett throwing a brilliant strike to Rosemy-Jacksaint in the back of the end zone. The receiver did a great job of keeping his toes in as he made the catch.
So, Georgia led 21-3 with 14:17 left in the second quarter.
The Vols managed to mount a drive, but a deep pass that Hooker threw was intercepted by the Dawgs’ Kelee Ringo, who snagged the ball over his shoulder just as if it had been intended for him. That was just Hooker’s second interception thrown this season.
Georgia ended the half by eating up so much time on its final drive that it was forced to kick a field goal on 3rd down, rather than try for a TD, giving the Bulldogs a 24-6 lead. Tennessee got the ball to start the third quarter and drove into Georgia territory, but then the Dawgs sacked Hooker twice in three plays to force a punt. Then, as a heavy rain began, Georgia went 67 yards in 15 plays, a drive of nearly 9 minutes, and went ahead 27-6 with 1:09 left in the third on Jack Podlesny’s 38-yard field goal. During the second half, a heavy rain began to fall, which probably contributed to the two teams exchanging fumbles.
The Dawgs were content to eat clock and kick a single field goal. “When the rain started, we said, ‘Alright, we’ll slow it down a little bit. Give our defense time to rest. Chew up some clock,’” Bennett said after the game.
Even so, the Georgia QB got satisfaction, saying the 3rd-quarter drive that resulted in the field goal “was probably my favorite drive of the year. Even though it ended up in a field goal, we marched for — I don’t know how long — it was like 14 plays; I thought it was awesome.”
It was a good day for Georgia head coach Kirby Smart. (Hyosub Shin/AJC)
The Vols finally reached the end zone with 4:15 remaining in the game, cutting Georgia’s lead to 27-13. But, Georgia tight end Darnell Washington recovered the Vols’ ensuing onside kick. A dropped pass kept the Dawgs from tacking on any more points, but the Vols weren’t able to get anything going, with Georgia ending Tennessee’s hope with yet another sack.
To say the Georgia defense exceeded expectations Saturday is a gross understatement. They were the game’s dominant unit. The Georgia offense, meanwhile, got it done, with the line doing a good job keeping a pocket for Bennett and opening holes when Georgia ran the ball. Bennett made good decisions.
The Dawgs wore a special uniform patch for the game, honoring the late Vince Dooley and, for the second Saturday in a row, had helmet decals honoring Bulldogs great Charley Trippi, who also recently passed away. Both legends also were honored with markings on Dooley Field, a moment of silence was observed and a special video was played before the game.
Overall, it was a great day to be a Georgia Bulldog, as Smart’s team managed to shut up one of college football’s chirpiest fan bases. Again, the real No. 1 team is the defending national champions who reside in Athens.
Georgia now is 27-1 in its past 28 games, with multiple wins over the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in country, according to the playoff rankings.
Think about that, and let’s take a moment to appreciate what Smart has brought to this program. These are the glory days; enjoy every moment.