KNOXVILLE – Tennessee had No. 6 Georgia right where it wanted it – down a touchdown with just under two minutes left to play in regulation.
That’s when Georgia fifth-year senior quarterback Aaron Murray put together a season-saving drive for the Bulldogs. Murray, aided by a couple of untimely Tennessee penalties, moved Georgia down the field, covering 75 yards in 10 plays in 1:49 of game time. His 2-yard touchdown pass to Rantavious Wooten with five seconds remaining tied the game at 31 and sent it to overtime.
Tennessee (3-3, 0-2 SEC) appeared to score a touchdown on its first possession of overtime, but a diving Pig Howard lost control of the ball at the 1-yard line and let the ball roll through the side of the end zone, ending UT’s possession.
Georgia (4-1, 3-0 SEC) kicker Marshall Morgan connected on a 42-yard field goal to seal the 34-31 win for the Bulldogs.
Despite the loss, an announced crowd of 102,455 stood and applauded as UT exited the playing field. It was a stadium filled with mixed emotions – some thrilled with the progress and toughness that UT showed, with others frustrated by UT’s continual inability to get over the hump and win a big game.
“I’m proud of every individual in our football program,” said an exasperated, though still upbeat, coach Butch Jones. “I’m proud to be their football coach. . “This place is special. This place is electric. The fans should be exceptionally proud of their football team.”
Though Howard might shoulder some of the blame for UT’s loss, in reality, the Vols wouldn’t have been in a position to potentially win without Howard, who was UT’s best playmaker on the day. The sophomore caught four passes for 70 yards and ran six times for 46 yards.
It was no surprise that the Vols turned to Howard with the game hanging in the balance. Motioning from left to right, Howard took a handoff, turned the corner and lunged for the front pylon. The officials initially signaled the play a touchdown, but replay clearly showed the ball came out before he was able to hit the pylon.
“He’s just trying to make a play,” Jones said of Howard’s effort in overtime. “[Howard] gave us a spark today – he was just trying to make a play.”
Added quarterback Justin Worley: “I just talked to [Howard] in the locker room. He’s beating himself up now. But he played phenomenally – we always use the term ‘snap and clear.'”
As gutsy as the Vols’ effort was, perhaps it was matched or even topped by Georgia, a team that, though favored by two touchdowns coming in, overcame an extraordinary rash of injuries to comeback and win the game.
Already without starting running back Todd Gurley and starting safety Tray Matthews, the Bulldogs seemingly lost a player every few minutes. Running back Keith Marshall, receiver Michael Bennett, receiver Justin Scott-Wesley and even punter Collin Barber all left the game for UGA and did not return. Left with just a few skill players, Murray still executed the game-winning drive.
But Tennessee can still take a lot from the effort despite the final outcome. UT had the No. 6 team in the nation down seven with under two minutes to score. Freshman linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin blocked a Georgia punt that freshman cornerback Devaun Swafford recovered and took it in for a score.
Senior running back Rajion Neal, playing without the help of backfield companion Marlin Lane (foot), had another huge game, racking up 148 yards and two touchdowns on 28 carries. The much-maligned passing game also took a step forward.
Senior Justin Worley completed 17-of-31 attempts for 215 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions.
“I thought Justin probably played his best game,” Jones said. “He was poised. He made the plays.”
The Vols will get their first bye week of the season next week before South Carolina comes to Neyland Stadium the following week. Will the loss to Georgia be deflating or a springboard for future success for UT? Jones thinks the Vols will only get better from here.
“You saw a football team, undermanned, that laid it on the line,” said Jones. “They made the plays to get it to that point. Learn how to finish. Proud to be their head football coach and they’ve had their best week of preparation. They bring it everyday and you guys don’t see what I see. I see a coming together of a football team, a football program.”
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter@DanielNooga