- The game: Georgia at Tennessee, Sept. 30, 2017.
- The moment: Interception on first play of the game for Bulldogs.
- Key player or players: Georgia’s Tyrique McGhee, Tennessee’s Quinten Dormady and Josh Smith.
- What it meant: It set up the Bulldogs’ first score en route to a 41-0 rout and let the Vols know that there would be no mismatch between their vaunted receiving corps and Georgia’s secondary.
ATHENS — It’s a play almost completely lost and forgotten from a magical season in which memorable moments rained down on the Georgia Bulldogs like all that confetti after the SEC Championship Game. But it was meaningful, and it set the tone for what became one of the Bulldogs’ most dominant road performances in history.
A lot of people hadn’t yet reached their seats in sold-out Neyland Stadium that warm Saturday afternoon when Rodrigo Blankenship launched yet another touchback out of Tennessee’s end zone. So, the clock still read 15:00 when the Vols’ offense lined up at their 25-yard line intent on driving the length of the field on their first possession and exposing the undefeated Bulldogs as frauds.
Four seconds later, Tennessee no longer had the ball.
Thanks to cornerback Tyrique McGhee, Georgia did.
Tennessee quarterback Quinten Dormady targeted heralded receiver Josh Smith on a quick out to the right side. McGhee immediately recognized the route and jumped it. He dove in front of Smith near the Georgia sideline, snatched the ball from the air and landed on his belly on the Vols’ 27-yard line.
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) September 30, 2017
“That was pretty much just film study and repetition in practice,” McGhee told reporters after the game. “Just reading my keys and just breaking on the ball and making a play for my team.”
The Bulldogs got only 3 points out of the play, settling for a 38-yard Blankenship field goal after netting just 7 yards in three plays. But a precedent had been established.
The Vols’ game plan of picking on the sophomore corner getting just the second start of his career wasn’t going to work.
“It was awesome to give my team the jump-start,” said McGhee, who was starting ahead of injured senior Malkom Parrish, who was not long back from a foot injury. “That’s what every guy dreams of and thinks they’re going to do coming in. It was awesome to make it happen. But after that, you have to get to the next play.”
McGhee did. Tennessee kept going after him, and he kept making plays. He finished with 4 pass breakups, and the Bulldogs snuffed out the Vols’ offense to the tune of just 142 total yards.
Georgia rolled on to a 41-0 victory while handing Tennessee its first shutout in 289 consecutive games, the sixth longest streak in the history of college football.
By the end of the game, it was a full-on party for Bulldogs fans. Continuing a trend that started at Notre Dame in South Bend three weeks earlier, the red-and-black faithful had commandeered another stadium takeover as Tennessee fans left and Georgia fans quickly moved to fill their seats down near the field.
There were many other memorable moments in that game, including 2 touchdown runs by freshman quarterback Jake Fromm, 109 yards rushing for Nick Chubb making his first start in Neyland Stadium since suffering a major knee injury there in 2015, Javon Wims’ leaping touchdown catch over former Bulldogs defensive back Shaq Wiggins and an interception by safety J.R. Reed.
But when it was over, everybody in the Georgia locker room kept coming back to that first play.
“He almost did it quietly,” head coach Kirby Smart said of McGhee’s interception. “I’d forgotten about the first pick, it happened so early. Then he made a great play down the field on a fade ball and on a stop-and-go. He made a couple of great plays on third down. He works hard. He’s a kid who works hard and has gotten better this year.”
With the victory, Georgia improved to 5-0 for the first time since 2012 and recorded its 800th all-time victory in 124 seasons. The Vols fell to 3-2 (0-2 SEC) in a season in which coach Butch Jones would get fired.