KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Georgia’s Sony Michel was by himself as he walked down the dark tunnel toward the visitor’s interview room underneath Neyland Stadium. But he didn’t make it. Ten yards short of the doorway, he broke down. Hard. So hard he had to grab hold of a stack of metal barriers to his left, bent over at the waist and sobbed.
It wasn’t very long, maybe 30 seconds or so. But it was intense. And with his eyes still wet and bloodshot, he trudged on into the cinder-block room to sit in front of cameras and answer questions.
Once there, Michel fully fell on the sword.
“It’s just hurts bad because I know my team fought hard and we made a lot of mistakes and I feel like I made the biggest mistake to turn the game around,” said Michel, a sophomore tailback from Fort Lauderdale. “I kind of want to take this game upon myself. I think we lost this game because of me.”
There’s a lot of irony in that statement considering what all Michel did well in the Bulldogs’ 38-31 loss to Tennessee Saturday night. Stepping in for injured starter Nick Chubb — who was lost to a knee injury on the game’s first play — Michel gained 145 yards on 22 carries while also playing on special teams. But all he could think about in the moments right after was the fumble he lost at the end of first half.
Michel considers that the game-turning play, and he’s probably right. The Bulldogs led 24-3 only seconds before and were still leading 24-10 when Michel lost control of the ball at the tail end of a 17-yard kickoff return. The Vols took over at Georgia’s 25-yard line and scored a momentum-stealing touchdown with just 27 seconds remaining in the first half.
“Just lack of focus,” Michel said. “That’s the number one rule, never give up the ball.”
Tennessee (3-3, 1-2 SEC), which would snap a five-game losing streak to the Bulldogs — carried that momentum into the second half and cashed it into a 31-24 advantage before the teams began a wild exchange to end the game.
And that’s where we pick up with Reggie Davis. The junior receiver also showed up with red, teary eyes and made it clear he felt that his failure trumped Michel’s.
On what otherwise was the most productive night of his career, Davis dropped what would have been a game-tying touchdown pass with four minutes to play. Davis beat Malik Foreman deep and quarterback Greyson Lambert, under heavy pressure, hit Davis in the hands in perfect stride inside the 5-yard line.
“When the team puts faith in you to make those kinds of plays, you’ve got to make those,” Davis said. “That’s what receivers get paid to do is make those kind of catches. I’m at a loss for words right now.”
Like Michel, though, the Bulldogs aren’t in position to win without Davis. He led the Bulldogs with 101 yards on three catches and a touchdown, added another score on a 70-yard punt return and, along with four kickoff returns, finished the game with 244 all-purpose yards.
That’s why coach Mark Richt and everybody in the Georgia locker room scoffed at the notion that the Bulldogs (4-2, 2-2) lost the game because of any single play from those two guys, or anybody else in a white jersey.
“It’s not on anybody’s shoulders but the Georgia football team,” said quarterback Greyson Lambert, who was 15-of-32 passing for 279 yards and two touchdowns.
Said Richt: “It’s sickening to everybody who spends 80 hours a week working for this, the coaching staff and everybody, the players with school and everything. It’s painful, but it’s sports.”
What makes it particularly frustrating for the Bulldogs, they blew a 24-3 first-half lead — the biggest of Richt’s 15-year tenure — and they still had a chance to win despite all the missteps.
Starting on its own half-yard line down seven points with 1:48 to play, Georgia drove all the way down to the Tennessee 22-yard line and were at the 27 with six seconds remaining when Lambert launched a deep fade for Malcolm Mitchell in the end zone. Double-covered by a pair of Georgia natives wearing Tennessee’s smoky grey — Brian Randolph and Cameron Sutton — Mitchell’s leaping attempt at the catch was swatted away.
“I thought I had it,” said Mitchell, who finished with 85 yards on five catches. “The defensive back and the safety came. I mean, the ball was literally tenths of a second from being in my hand. That’s how close the ball was. I just feel like he hit it and it drained out.”
The Bulldogs lost primarily because they could get Tennessee’s offense off the field or keep theirs on it. The Vols ran an 90 offensive plays to Georgia’s 62, held the ball for 34 minutes, nearly doubled up Georgia on first downs (26 to 15) and rolled up 519 yards.
“We’ve really got a young, inexperienced defensive football team,” said Georgia defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, making a rare post-game interview appearance. “The guys are working really hard. We’ve just got to get them to come along a little faster.”