KNOXVILLE – Last week I wrote that it would be hard to imagine Georgia playing any better than it did against Mississippi State. Well, a week later the Bulldogs played better against Tennessee.
A lot better.
The final score of 41-0 tells you that. But there was so much more.
Defensive dominance, offensive efficiency, spectacular special teams. OK, maybe not “spectacular,” but way better than adequate.
The sum total equaled the second-largest margin of victory in the 118-year history of its series against Tennessee (Georgia beat them 44-0 in 1981). It was the Vols’ first home shutout since 1994 and the Bulldogs’ first 5-0 start since 2012.
No. 7 Georgia makes its second straight trip across the Smoky Mountains next Saturday to face Vanderbilt in Nashville. The Commodores (3-2, 0-2) lost to Florida 38-24 Saturday in Gainesville.
Now for the grades:
You could make a pretty good argument here for lowering the Bulldogs to a B on this side of the ball. After all, they did struggle early on, especially with getting the running game going. Georgia had only three first downs and seven yards rushing on seven carries in the first quarter. But obviously they were able to get the offense back on track fairly quickly. The Bulldogs rushed for 111 yards in the second quarter alone and finished with 294. What has been most impressive with this bunch in 2017 is its ability to convert opportunities. Georgia is 19-for-19 on red zone opportunities this season, with 14 of those ending in TDs. That’s a significant improvement over last year, when the Bulldogs finished seventh in the league. But with only 378 total yards and an interception thrown by freshman Jake Fromm, there’s room for improvement here.
Inside linebacker Roquan Smith continued his bid for All-SEC and All-America honors as he flew from sideline-to-sideline to provide containment of Tennessee running back John Kelly. He also led the Bulldogs with 11 tackles. Overall, Georgia had eight tackles for loss and three sacks against the Vols, who finished with only 142 yards total offense. It ended UT’s streak of scoring in 289 consecutive games, dating back to 1994. After not recording an interception in the first three games, the Bulldogs notched two for the second consecutive week as sophomore Tyrique McGhee getting the first of his career — along with four pass break-ups — and J.R. Reed coming down with his second of the season off a deflection by Deandre Baker. Georgia gave up only one big play, a 44-yard reception by Kelly, but turned it into one of its own by yanking the ball loose and recovering it at the end of the run. That gave the Bulldogs four takeaways for the night.
Special teams: A
Rodrigo Blankenship’s streak of consecutive touchbacks on kickoffs ended at 18. But the one on which he finally didn’t kick it out of the end zone, Tennessee could return it only to the 21. He finished with five more touchbacks in the game and was asked to try only one measly field goal of 38 yards, on which he was true. Even David Marvin, the graduate transfer who came to take Blankenship’s job, got into the game and made a 19-yard field goal. It begins to feel like quibbling when you point out a couple of shanks by punter Cameron Nizialek in a 41-point game. But he did have one punt that went off the side of his foot for 28 yards and short-footed another kick at the 21 he was trying to get inside the 10. He finished with a season low 35.2 yard average. Mecole Hardman returned four punts for 45 yards, too.
Georgia coach Kirby Smart said Saturday was the most confidence he has felt coming into a game because the Bulldogs had practiced so well all week back in Athens. He feels like he’s starting to get some “buy-in” from the players about the importance of going hard in practice because that translates to playing hard in games. Smart could be seen talking to Jacob Eason for an extended period of time before putting the quarterback in to finish the game in the fourth quarter. So far he has managed that situation perfectly. He also had the forethought to ask Nick Chubb to speak to the team on Friday about how much Saturday’s game meant to him. Clearly, that produced an inspired effort against Tennessee.
There were actually more flaws in this game than the final score would indicate. But the Bulldogs executed so well overall as a team that their play quickly erased a lot of the blemishes. For instance, no sooner had Fromm thrown a misfired pass that resulted in an interception, than Lorenzo Carter torpedoed in to recover a Tennessee mishandled exchange that gave the Bulldogs the ball right back. Georgia was penalized 6 times for 65 yards, with a couple that could have gone the other way and changed the complexion of the game. The Bulldogs answered every challenge resoundingly. Now the primary task is to keep the team humbled and focused. That’s a good problem to have.