I hate night games on the road. A night game at home means a longer day in Athens, and, where the Classic City is concerned, I subscribe to the theory that too much of a good thing is an even better thing. A night game on the road, though, means a Saturday filled with fretting, so that, by the time kickoff rolls around, my stomach is churning and I am ready to watch the game while quivering behind the couch, peering out timidly with one eye open like a middle schooler watching a scary movie for which he mistakenly believed himself to be emotionally ready.
In my defense, there is more than the ordinary level of justification for adopting this attitude when the Georgia Bulldogs are facing the Tennessee Volunteers in Neyland Stadium, where the Red and Black endured epic beatdowns on their last two trips to Knoxville in 2007 and 2009, but, this time, my fears proved unfounded, as the Red and Black claimed a 20-12 triumph on Rocky Top to card their biggest win in nearly two years.
The opening period began auspiciously enough for the ‘Dawgs, with a 14-play, 62-yard drive featuring a trio of touches by Branden Smith and a pair of fourth-down conversions on Isaiah Crowell runs, culminating in a 35-yard Blair Walsh field goal to stake the visitors to an early 3-0 lead. That initial advantage endured for the remainder of the first quarter, thanks to a missed 51-yard three-point attempt by the Big Orange’s Michael Palardy, but the home team tied it up shortly after the midpoint of the second stanza when Palardy made good on his second try from 28 yards to cap off an 80-yard march.
The Red and Black answered before the half, moving from their own 17 to the opposition’s five by starting the possession with several runs, then using play action effectively to pick up a couple of first downs, the second of them coming on a 43-yard completion to Malcolm Mitchell. Walsh connected on a 23-yard field goal to put the Bulldogs up 6-3, but Tennessee knotted the score once more by driving the ball down in the final two minutes to kick the 43-yarder that made it 6-6 at the break.
The third quarter got underway with a Volunteer three-and-out culminating in a bad snap and a short punt, putting the Athenians in position to drive 38 yards---21 of which came on seven carries by the injured Crowell---for the touchdown that staked the visitors to a 13-6 lead. For a scary moment, it appeared that the single-score edge had evaporated on another of the sort of fluky plays like the one on which the Big Orange scored against the Red and Black in 2003, but instant replay did its job, and the ensuing Volunteer punt set up the ‘Dawgs at their own seven yard line.
It took Georgia three plays to turn poor field position into a touchdown. Mitchell hauled in a 71-yard reception, Aaron Murray picked up five yards on the next snap, and Crowell covered the remaining 17 yards separating the visitors from the end zone. A 50-yard kickoff return went for naught when Tennessee was forced to punt once more, and a Bulldog march that was going well when the final period began quickly became a comedy of errors as the penalties mounted, giving the Big Orange custody of the pigskin at the visitors’ 43 yard line.
An aggressive Georgia defense forced Tyler Bray to draw an intentional grounding penalty on first down, which set the stage for a three-and-out and gave the Athenians the ball back at their own 20 yard line. Conservative play-calling led swiftly to a Drew Butler punt, and the Vols moved equally quickly down the field, first on the arm of Bray, then, when the starter went out with an injury, on the arm, and finally on the legs, of Matt Simms. A one-yard quarterback sneak cut the lead to eight, but a Bulldog block of a Tennessee extra point kept it at eight.
A botched onside kick attempt put the Classic City Canines in a position to run the clock down from just under three minutes to just under 20 seconds before the Big Orange got the ball back, and the game ended with a Jarvis Jones sack to give Mark Richt his 100th career victory . . . and the one that all but assured he would be back in 2012 to continue his pursuit of Vince Dooley’s school victories record.
Though there was much to dislike about a game that featured 75 yards lost on penalties, a Georgia squad led by underclassmen prevailed in a close one at night and on the road in a game in which the Red and Black led in first downs (20-17), total offense (366-270), and time of possession (33:43-26:17). The Bulldogs went for it on fourth down three times (and converted every time), held the Volunteers to an uncharacteristic 30.8 per cent third-down conversion rate, and did not turn the ball over even once. The defense, which gave up six points in the first half and six points in the second, held the home team to negative rushing yardage, while Aaron Murray completed 15 of 25 aerial attempts for 227 yards. It was a gutsy, gritty effort by a young team that rewarded its coaches’ confidence with a triumphant performance.
We didn’t know coming in whether the 2011 Georgia team, like the 2010 Georgia team, would lose every close game it played or win only against teams that were destined to finish below .500. We knew coming in that the Bulldogs hadn’t won in Knoxville since 2005 and hadn’t beaten a Volunteer team that would end up with a winning record since 2003. We don’t know now whether this team can win the East, but we know this team and these coaches believe in themselves, so maybe, just maybe, it wouldn’t be altogether out of line to suggest that perhaps we might want to start believing in them, too.
This much we know for damned sure: There ain’t nothing like being a Bulldog on Saturday night after beating Tennessee!