Apparently, I missed a mission-critical update while conference expansion was sweeping the nation. I knew, of course, that the Missouri Tigers and the Texas A&M Aggies were joining the SEC; what I didn’t realize was that they were part of a four-team trade that sent the Georgia Bulldogs and the Tennessee Volunteers to the Big 12 in return. How else are we to explain the fact that the ‘Dawgs and the Vols between them produced 46 first downs, 1,038 yards of total offense, and 95 points between the hedges on Saturday?
It did not appear at first that such a shootout would unfold. The Red and Black began the game with a methodical 13-play drive covering 84 yards in just over six minutes. The contest’s first carry saw Malcolm Mitchell turning a trick play into a seven-yard gain, then Todd Gurley ran the ball five times for 32 yards and Aaron Murray threw the ball five times and completed four of his passes in a march that ended with the Bulldogs holding a 7-0 lead.
After that, though, Tennessee went three and out, moving backwards on a possession that featured two Tyler Bray incompletions and a five-yard penalty against the visiting Volunteers. Even when Murray threw a pick-six on the next series, the resulting tie was short-lived, as Keith Marshall broke the deadlock with a 75-yard scamper to paydirt. “Gurshall” continued to gash the Big Orange, between them notching 294 of the home team’s 302 positive rushing yards, while Murray found Jay Rome for 21 yards and Tavarres King for 31 as the host squad built up a 27-10 lead early in the second quarter.
Marshall Morgan’s missed extra point after Gurley’s 51-yard touchdown run proved to be a harbinger of bad things to come, however, as poor decisionmaking on special teams and poor ball security on offense repeatedly put the defense in tough spots. A Tennessee punt was downed three feet in front of the Georgia goal line, prompting a return boot by the Bulldogs that set up the Vols at midfield. The Big Orange traversed that distance in ten plays to cut the lead to ten.
Murray, who would go 19 of 25 for 278 yards through the air, was sacked on the next possession, and the resulting fumble gave the visitors custody of the oval on the Bulldogs’ eight yard line. Three plays later, Tennessee was back in the end zone, and the lead was down to four. Starting from their own one yard line, the Red and Black advanced as far as the 18 before another fumble awarded the Volunteers good field position yet again, and they cashed in once more to take a 30-27 lead. The Athenians used the final 42 seconds of the first half to move into striking distance for a 50-yard field goal, yet still the ‘Dawgs were tied at the break with a Tennessee team the Classic City Canines had roundly outplayed for 30 minutes.
I was asked after the game whether I could recall Georgia playing so horrendous a second quarter in recent memory. I reflected on that for a bit and replied that the second quarter of the 2006 Tennessee game came to mind, as that period saw the Volunteers chip away at an early Bulldog edge between the hedges, giving notice that the Big Orange were about to turn a deficit at intermission into a rout in the second half. In a series as crazy as this one, no result would seem surprising, but, whereas the Red and Black unraveled before the Tennessee onslaught six years before, this year’s squad went back to work in the third quarter.
Todd Grantham’s defense forced a punt on the Volunteers’ first second-half possession, then Murray began the ensuing drive with a 38-yard completion to Arthur Lynch that carried the ‘Dawgs from their own 31 yard line to the opposition’s 31 yard line. That drive ended in the touchdown that put the Athenians out in front for good, and another well-called Mike Bobo offensive game was well on its way to generating 560 total yards.
Not even Murray’s 32-yard scoring strike to Michael Bennett later in the third period salted the game away, though, as Derek Dooley’s charges went 78 yards on their next possession, covering the last 46 of them on a Cordarrelle Patterson rush that ended on the far side of the goal line. Georgia answered with a 72-yard run by Marshall and a two-point conversion pass to Marlon Brown to extend the Bulldogs’ advantage to 51-37, yet still the fireworks were not finished: Bray, who spent so much of the game utterly untouched that I began to suspect he might be able to bypass the equipment manager altogether and hang his pristine jersey in his locker after the game, hooked up with Mychal Rivera for a 62-yard pickup on a drive that ended in a missed field goal, then, once the fourth quarter had begun, Tennessee began at last to run the ball with authority, using the one-two punch of Marlin Lane and Rajion Neal to march 60 yards and punch in the touchdown that cut the Bulldogs’ lead to seven.
There the scoring ended, but the Volunteers continued to threaten, bottling up the Red and Black attack for the remainder of the game while advancing the ball with regularity. The defense, bending but not breaking, halted Tennessee drives of 22 and 42 yards with a Sanders Commings interception and a John Jenkins fumble recovery, respectively. Commings picked off Bray’s final desperation heave in the closing seconds to seal the deal.
Inasmuch as I attended the game and spent much of the remainder of the evening traveling home from the Classic City, I have not yet had the opportunity to review any comments or articles posted here at Dawg Sports since this morning, so I am in no position to gauge the mood of the room, and I apologize if any part of my assessment is redundant. Obviously, there was quite a lot not to like about this game, though.
I worry, of course, that the Bulldogs turned the ball over three times, gave up 478 yards of total offense, and allowed the Volunteers to convert eight of 15 third downs in the course of moving the chains 26 times on a Georgia defense that appeared very nearly as prone to giving up the big play as the Georgia offense is to making the big play. I worry that the Athenians’ erratic special teams play is going to cost the Classic City Canines a game later in the campaign, and I particularly am concerned that, for the first time this autumn, the Red and Black appeared to be the less well-conditioned team in the fourth quarter. Heck, I’m even worried that the offense’s penchant for big plays is going to lead to an overworked Bulldog defense reminiscent of the Ray Goff years, when Richard Bell was creating frustration of a sort even Willie Martinez would not later be able to match.
I also note, though, that, despite a second-quarter implosion and some genuinely heinous NFL replacement-caliber officiating, the Bulldogs trailed for only about three-quarters of one of the 60 minutes of the game. The Red and Black averaged 11.1 yards per pass (as compared to Tennessee’s 6.2) and 7.2 yards per rush (as opposed to the Volunteers’ 4.9). Georgia is 5-0 for the first time in six seasons, has won four of the last five games against a Tennessee program that took nine straight from the ‘Dawgs between 1989 and 1999, has scored more than 40 points for five consecutive contests for the first time in school history, and has won 15 straight regular-season outings for just the third time in 120 years. (The Bulldogs won 15 in a row in the regular season from 1945 to 1947 and 20 in a row in the regular season from 1981 to 1983. During the run from 1979 to 1981 that included the 1980 national championship, the ‘Dawgs won 14 in a row in the regular season.)
Most of all, the Athenians played a game every bit as crazy and losable as last year’s South Carolina game, yet still they found a way to emerge victorious. At the end of the night, therefore, I see the glass as half-full, rather than as half-empty. Yeah, I’m not happy about the fact that Georgia gave up 44 points to Tennessee, but it could have been worse; the Bulldogs could’ve given up 49 points to Middle Tennessee, instead. I’m just sayin’.