Aside from one play and one song, Saturday in Knoxville completely belonged to Kirby Smart’s Dawgs.
I saw a few Vols fans jumping on social media to crow right after a bad defensive scheme resulted in a 75-yard touchdown run on Saturday’s first play from scrimmage in the Georgia-Tennessee game, giving the home team an early 7-0 lead.
Unfortunately for those prematurely elated fans and the Vols — and fortunately for the Dawgs — football games last more than 11 seconds.
And in the remaining 59 minutes and 49 seconds of Saturday’s meeting of No. 1 Georgia and No 18 Tennessee in Knoxville — undefeated UGA’s third consecutive game against a ranked team — the Dawgs mauled the Volunteers, 38-10.
The fact that most of the crowd of 102,000 at Neyland Stadium consisted of screaming UT fans didn’t help the hapless Vols, either. Unlike last year in Athens, when a vocal Sanford Stadium crowd clearly rattled the visiting Tennessee team Between the Hedges, the Knoxville fans didn’t have a major impact on Georgia. Of course, as Dawgs receiver Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint noted after the game, while it was louder Saturday than when Georgia visited two years ago, “It got a little quieter as the game went on.”
And that’s in spite of beloved Tennessee superstar Dolly Parton trying to get the folks in orange all pumped up (despite sound issues) when Vols hero Peyton Manning escorted her out onto the field to sing the fans’ favorite song (you know the one).
Dolly might have been able to crack the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame without ever recording a rock album (until after the fact), but there are some things even she can’t accomplish, like bringing her team a victory over a Georgia team that has poured itself a cup of ambition, as she once sang. (Dolly did, however, totally conquer starstruck CBS sideline reporter Jenny Dell.)
About that first play of the game: Initially, the Vols’ instant score made me wonder whether Smart ought to reconsider deferring to the second half when Georgia wins the coin toss, and start taking the ball instead. After all, the Dawgs’ past five opponents have managed to score on their first possession.
But since Georgia ripped off 24 unanswered points in response — and the UGA defense salved its wounded pride by pretty much shutting down Josh Heupel’s vaunted 3-plays-a-minute offense — maybe making the Dawgs mad early in a game is counterproductive. Tennessee only ran for an additional 55 net yards after that first play.
Early in the season, Smart struggled to describe his 2023 team’s “identity,” resorting most often to the word “resilient.” He refined that answer after Saturday’s romp in Knoxville.
The mark of this team, he said, is its “ability to take a punch. … This group’s proven, again and again, that they can take jabs, punches, with the best of them [and] hang around until they can throw one.”
Actually, the Dawgs hit UT with a lot more than just one knockout punch, pummeling the Vols for most of the rest of the game, as the Georgia defense forced several three-and-outs by the Vols in between the Bulldogs’ scoring drives.
It was another big day offensively for the Dawgs. Georgia outgained the Vols 472 yards to 277, with quarterback Carson Beck completing 24 of 30 passes (80%) for 298 yards and 3 touchdowns.
(Georgia’s starting QB did throw one interception, but it was negated by a defensive holding call against Tennessee. Georgia’s only turnover came on a bad snap that was mishandled, with the Vols recovering the fumble. They couldn’t make anything of that gift, however, despite being 1st-and-goal at one point.)
Beck made numerous pinpoint passes despite tight coverage and was especially strong on third down, completing six key throws in that situation and running for two other first downs. Georgia came into the game leading the nation in third-down conversion percentage at 56% and proceeded to do even better that against the Vols, converting 9 of 13 (62%).
Rosemy-Jacksaint had career-highs with 7 catches for 91 yards and 2 touchdowns; Dillon Bell tied a career-high with 5 receptions for a career-best 90 yards and a TD, and had 1 run for 4 yards; and Brock Bowers caught 7 passes for 60 yards and a touchdown. Eight different Dawgs caught passes in the game.
Bell, who has become Georgia’s Mr. Versatility, “came up big,” as Smart said later. Besides catching a pass for a TD, Bell also threw one on a play where he lined up in the backfield for what looked like a toss sweep (drawing the defense in). But after taking the pitch, Bell stopped and lofted an 18-yard TD pass to Rosemy-Jacksaint, who was standing all alone in the end zone. Kudos to offensive coordinator Mike Bobo for setting that one up by calling a couple of other toss sweeps earlier in the game.
Receiver Ladd McConkey sat out most of the game after hurting his ankle the previous week and Georgia also lost Rara Thomas to a foot injury after he made an 18-yard catch early in the game. Bowers was seen limping a bit and sat out most of the latter portion of the game, though Smart said the superstar tight end maintained he was still good to go.
For the Vols, QB Joe Milton completed only 17 of 30 passes for 147 yards and no scores. He was sacked once by Mykel Williams, and also was tackled for a loss on a quarterback draw.
Despite Georgia right guard Tate Ratledge going down with an injury late in the first quarter and the Vols blitzing frequently early on, the Dawgs’ plug-and-play offensive line had a great day in pass protection. (The Vols’ only sack came late in the game when the Dawgs’ backup QB, Brock Vandagriff, was playing behind the third-string OL.)
Tennessee had a better defensive front than Ole Miss did the previous week, with the Dawgs not having a lot of success running up the middle, but Kendall Milton did impress with a nifty 15-yard run around the end for a touchdown. He carried the ball 14 times for a net of 66 yards, while Daijun Edwards had 11 carries for 34 yards. Receiver Arian Smith gained 33 yards on one end-around play. Georgia finished with 156 yards net rushing to Tennessee’s 130 yards. “They hit us for two-thirds of their rushing yards on one play,” Smart remarked after the game. Well, nearly — that one play actually accounted for 58 percent of Tennessee’s yards on the ground.
The Dawgs’ offense again had plenty of explosive plays on the day, with that 33-yard run and pass receptions covering 34, 24, 23 and 21 yards.
On defense, Tykee Smith led the Dawgs with 10 tackles, and he was one of seven Georgia defenders with at least 3 stops. Javon Bullard was next with 6 tackles. Bullard also had a particularly outstanding play when he broke up a Tennessee pass in the end zone by flipping the ball out with one hand.
Smart praised the play of his secondary after the game, noting: “We had our backs to the ball three times and dang if we didn’t win every one of them.”
On special teams, placekicker Peyton Woodring made his only field goal attempt and converted all his PATs and Brett Thorson only had to punt twice, averaging 44 yards.
The entire team played well after the game’s first play — perhaps their best overall performance of the season so far. Smart characterized Georgia’s domination of time of possession as “just staggering” — the Dawgs kept the ball for 40 minutes and 58 seconds to Tennessee’s 19:02.
Despite all the praise he doled out after the game, the one thing Smart indicated he wants his team to work on is that bad habit they’ve gotten into of allowing opponents to score on their first possession.
And he wouldn’t go along with efforts to look ahead to the Dec. 2 SEC Championship Game against Alabama, preferring to focus on next week’s meeting with in-state rival Georgia Tech. Said UGA’s head coach: “I don’t know if our kids understand this rivalry like our coaching staff does. … It’s a big one.”
Meanwhile, the No. 1-ranked Bulldogs now have won 28 games in a row (tying the SEC record), 44 of their past 45 games, 27 SEC games in a row (an ongoing UGA record), 38 regular season games in a row (another ongoing UGA record), 15 road games in row (also an ongoing UGA record) and have completed their third straight undefeated run through SEC play. It’s the first time that’s happened in the conference since the Bulldogs did it in 1980-82.
The Dawgs also ended Tennessee’s streak of 14 consecutive wins at home.
Sorry, Dolly. We still love you.
The most dominant era of Georgia football continues!