KNOXVILLE – Tennessee came within a few yards and a few seconds of knocking off No. 6 Georgia on Saturday, but ultimately fell 34-31 to the Bulldogs in overtime.
Here are some position-by-position grades:
It looked like more of the same from quarterback Justin Worley in the first half, who only led the Vols to one field goal in the first 30 minutes and couldn’t find a rhythm in the passing game. The junior signal caller, helped by a great game from the skill players, found a new level in the second half, though. He ended up completing 17-of-31 attempts for 215 yards, a touchdown and no interceptions. He made some huge third-down throws and helped the Vols execute three fourth-down conversions in the fourth quarter as well.
Running backs: A
It was all Rajion Neal on Saturday. With Marlin Lane (foot) out, Neal was the only running back to get a touch against the Bulldogs. He responded in a big way, taking 28 carries for 148 yards and two touchdowns in addition to catching five passes for 19 yards. His three biggest carries came with the game hanging in the balance late. He had two fourth-down conversion runs and a 7-yard touchdown that put UT up 31-24 in the final minutes of the game.
Wide receivers/tight ends: B+
It was unfortunate for this group that UT’s overtime possession ended with a fumble from wide receiver Pig Howard. Howard, along with the rest of the unit, played a great game overall. Howard, who also played a role in the run game, accounted for over 100 yards of total offense. Freshman Marquez North had his first career touchdown and freshman receivers Jason Croom and Josh Smith and tight end A.J. Branisel also had clutch receptions. The numbers weren’t enormous, but this group seemed to take a step forward.
Offensive line: B
The run blocking was solid. Tennessee piled up 189 yards on the ground against Georgia, a team that isn’t known for its dominating defense this year, but still has plenty of SEC-caliber players on that side of the ball. The pass blocking was, at times, uncharacteristically shaky. The Vols gave up three sacks and struggled to block Georgia defensive lineman Ray Drew, who had two of the sacks.
Defensive line: B
Freshman defensive end Corey Vereen picked up his first career sack, but also acted like a first-year player when he got a personal foul on the final drive of regulation for Georgia. Jacques Smith chipped in five tackles and a tackle for loss and Corey Miller added four tackles and a quarterback hurry. Despite being down to their third running back, the Bulldogs still piled up 238 yards on the ground.
A.J. Johnson recorded a season-high 12 stops and 1.5 tackles for loss. Dontavis Sapp added seven tackles. Brent Brewer, who was banged up during the game, added a couple stops. It was an overall decent effort from this group, but it had some plays it would like to have back, such as Murray’s 57-yard run right through the heart of the defense.
This group, known for its ability to force turnovers, didn’t pick any passes off, but it did hold Murray and the Georgia offense under 200 yards of passing. The unfortunate rash of injuries to Georgia skill players certainly helped UT defend the normally explosive Bulldogs. And though the secondary played well for most of the game, it couldn’t get a stop when the Vols needed one most – on the final drive of regulation when Murray marched the ‘Dawgs 75 yards in just under two minutes.
Special teams: A+
The Vols put together their most complete special teams effort of the season. Michael Palardy was virtually perfect, averaging over 50 yards per punt, regularly kicking into the end zone on kickoffs and hitting a short field goal and some pressure-packed extra points. The coverage was solid and Jalen Reeves-Maybin’s blocked punt, paired with Devaun Swafford’d 15-yard return for a score, was one of the biggest plays in the game.
The Vols were a play or two from an A+ here, but, ultimately, it’s hard to give the coaching staff that high of a grade without a win. Still, the Vols played with improved attitude, toughness and executed at a higher level than they have in a long time. The gutsy play calling at the end put UT in position to win. UT’s inability to beat ranked teams continues to be frustrating for Tennessee, but if the Vols build on how they played Saturday, it won’t be too long before the Ws start coming.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga