Quick Summary: Tennessee and Georgia have played some classic games through the years, and 2012 can now be added to that list. Georgia’s 51-44 win was nothing short of a shootout. Two programs that have historically had great defenses were ripped by big plays all afternoon.
The Bulldogs were strong early, building a 27-10 lead early in the second quarter.
Tennessee responded with a flurry of huge plays. Three Tennessee touchdowns in the final five minutes of the first half sent the game into halftime tied at 30. Georgia responded with the first 13 points of the second half, but Tennessee again got back in it. A 46-yard touchdown run on what was supposed to be a reverse pass from receiver Cordarrelle Patterson brought the Vols within six.
Georgia extended the lead to 51-37 with a 72-yard run from freshman Keith Marshall and a two-point conversion. The Vols methodically moved back down the field on offense to pull within a score early in the fourth quarter, but ultimately they were never able to find the winning score.
It was over when: The Vols moved the ball into Georgia territory late in the fourth quarter with a chance to tie the game at 51. Quarterback Tyler Bray was hit by freshman linebacker Jordan Jenkins, and nose tackle John Jenkins recovered the fumble. The Bulldogs were then able to melt away all but approximately 20 seconds of the clock.
Tennessee players of the game: The offensive line played perhaps its best game in the Derek Dooley era. Until Bray’s costly fumble, the Georgia defense hadn’t gotten to him all game, and the run game was significantly improved. The Vols finished the game with 193 yards on the ground, a total contrast from last year’s minus-21 yard rushing effort against Georgia. Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney showed great confidence in the line, sticking with the run game all evening.
Georgia players of the game: Two freshman running backs – Keith Marshall and Todd Gurley – had huge nights. Gurley was the workhorse with 24 carries for 132 yards and three touchdowns. He had a 51-yard run, but it was fellow freshman Keith Marshall who was the big-play threat, ripping off runs of 72 and 75 yards to finish the game with 10 carries for 164 yards and two touchdowns.
Unsung hero: Tennessee running back Rajion Neal wasn’t flashy, but he was consistent running, catching and in pass blocking. He finished the game with 23 carries for 104 yards and a touchdown. He added five receptions for 53 yards and another receiving touchdown. He was there when Bray needed a check-down option, and he laid several key blocks.
Three stats of note:
1. Tennessee and Georgia combined for seven turnovers: That was a huge story line in the game. Tennessee safety Byron Moore intercepted a pass and ran it in for a 35-yard score to tie the game at seven in the first quarter. Linebacker Herman Lathers sacked and stripped Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray for a big momentum swing in the second quarter. Those were big for Tennessee, but ultimately Bray’s fumble and two late interceptions prevented Tennessee from pulling out the road win.
2. Tennessee kicker Derrick Brodus was 1 of 2 on field goals and 4 of 5 on extra points: The kicking woes just keep coming for the Vols. After hitting four field goals against Akron last week, Brodus looked like he had solidified the job. Instead, a missed extra point and a missed short field goal forced Dooley to go back to former kicker Michael Palardy for the last extra point of the game.
3. Georgia averaged 7.2 yards per rush: That’s a reflection of Tennessee’s continuing habit of giving up long runs. The defense bowed up at times and got some key stops in the second half, but overall, there have been far too many long runs against Tennessee this season.
Where does Tennessee go from here: The Vols have a bye next week before travelling to Mississippi State on Sept. 13. As bad as the defense was at times against Georgia, there was a lot to build on from that performance. It might sound elementary, but the fact that Tennessee never quit was the most encouraging sign. The Vols were down 17 in the first half and 14 in the second half, and they were still in position to tie or win it late in the fourth quarter. The defense must learn to stop the huge play, but the offense can be encouraged by its balance and resiliency. The kicking game might be beyond repair. Look for Palardy to potentially move back into the starting role.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee football for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @Daniel_LewisCBS.