Not many finishes like this.
But unfortunately for the Georgia Bulldogs, Tennessee got the last throw to the end zone and fashioned a 43-yard touchdown pass as time expired to hand the Bulldogs one of the most gut-wrenching losses in memory, by 34-31 Saturday in boisterous Sanford Stadium.
Before Volunteer quarterback Joshua Dobbs hurled the winning bomb – with the Bulldogs back in a prevent defense – to Jauan Jennings, the Bulldogs had seemingly pulled out a near-miracle win themselves as freshman quarterback Jacob Eason hit streaking fellow freshman Riley Ridley with a 47-yard scoring strike in the left corner with only 10 seconds to play to lift Georgia up by 31-28, with the PAT kick by Rodrigo Blankenship. But the Bulldogs, alas, were tagged with a celebration penalty after Riley’s score.
And as things turned out, Georgia would pay for its extra exuberance after Riley’s score. The penalty made Georgia kick off from the 20 and after Micah Abernathy ran the ball all the way back to the Georgia 43, only the four seconds showed on the clock. But that was enough for the Vols to win it … Jennings going high amongst a host of UGA defenders to pull Dobbs’ heave down for the game-winner as the Tennessee players raced from the sideline in celebration.
“The kids fought hard and I’m proud of the way they played,” said a visibly disappointed Kirby Smart, Georgia head coach. “We challenged them this week. We practiced physical and we played physical. Bottom line is we’ve got to do better; we’ve got to do better than them. … We’re a good football team, but we’ve got to improve. We challenged them to play their best game today and a lot of them did that. That’s a response I was proud of. A lot of the kids played hard and physical. Now we’ve got to do it again next week.”
On the last play of the game, Smart said, “That’s something we practice every week – last-play defense. You put your best jumpers in the end zone and everybody gets up and gets the ball down. We do drills to rep it. Their kid just went up and got it.”
Smart said Eason’s touchdown pass to Ridley just seconds before the Vols’ game-winner brought out a case of good and bad.
“(Eason) extended the play and threw a laser in there,” Smart said. “That was a big play and we caught it. The sad thing is we had an undisciplined penalty and that will bite you when you least expect it. We pride ourselves on being disciplined. They should know that. You hate to learn a lesson like that. It’s disappointing.”
“There’s just so much emotion involved,” said senior defensive back Maurice Smith, the UGA transfer from Alabama. “You’re in it until the last play. Once that ball comes down, you’re hoping that the people did their job and knocked it down but for it just to fall into somebody’s hands and you see their team running on the field, it’s just heartbreak. I wasn’t able to see how [Jennings] caught it,” said Smith. “I just do my job and we expect everyone to do their job, but we’ll clean it up.”
“I’ve never been a part of something like that,” declared Georgia senior offensive guard Greg Pyke. “We won the game, then next thing you know, we lost the game. It’s heartbreaking. I’m wishing we could have won but they had a good play on offense and our defense didn’t make the play. That’s just how it goes. Kudos to them on making that good play.”
The sky-high Bulldogs, coming off the debacle last weekend at Ole Miss, took it to the Volunteers for most of the first half, bolting to a surprising 17-0 lead before Tennessee got on the board on a Joshua Dobbs’ scrambling run at the Georgia 4 with just 12 seconds to go. The play had to be reviewed as it appeared the Bulldogs had knocked Dobbs out of bounds shy of the goal line.
Georgia’s first-half points came via a 14-yard run up the middle by Sony Michel, capping a 79-yard, 11- play march, a 27-yard field goal by Rodrigo Blankenship and a diving fumble recovery by quarterback Eason in the end zone after Michel lost the handle on the ball trying to score from inside the Tennessee 1. Earlier, the Bulldogs had avoided a Volunteer touchdown when sophomore cornerback Deandre Baker separated UT running back Jalen Hurd from the ball at the Bulldogs 1-yard line, after Hurd was heading for the goal line after pulling in a deep pass from Dobbs. The loose ball sailed into the end zone and junior corner Aaron Davis recovered for a Georgia touchback. The Bulldogs then responded with an 80-yard scoring drive capped by Eason diving on Michel’s fumble in the Vols’ end zone.
The game then evolved into a sea of emotions in the second half as Tennessee fought back within 17-14 only to see the Bulldogs move up by 10 again when Eason hit freshman tight end Isaac Nauta on a 50-yard scoring pass straight down the middle of the field. Still, the Vols fought back, reeling off a Dobbs-to-Alvin Kamara 16-yard touchdown pass on the first play of the final quarter to draw to within 24-21 and then taking their first lead of the night at 28-24 when defensive end Corey Vereen recovered an Eason fumble in his own end zone with just 2:56 left to play.
But there was no folding up the tent by Georgia in this contest, even after it appeared the Volunteers had locked the game up when an Eason pass was intercepted at the Tennessee 36 with just 2:10 remaining. But the Bulldogs’ defense then stood tall and forced a Vol punt that gave Georgia the ball one last time at its own 20, now with only 1:07 showing on the scoreboard clock. Eason passes to Terry Godwin, Isaiah McKenzie and Jeb Blazevich pushed the ball to the Tennessee 47 and there it came … Eason escaping pressure by the Vols’ pass rush and throwing a perfect strike to freshman Ridley, breaking open inside the Tennessee 10-yard line. When Ridley crossed the goal line, there were only 10 seconds to play in this ball game. The stadium was turned upside down in a cascade of sound as folks in red and black everywhere began celebrating what seemingly had to be one of the most electrifying finishes in Georgia football history.
But it was not to be as there came the 15-yard celebration penalty on the kickoff, there came Abernathy’s lengthy kickoff return to the Georgia 43 and there came Dobbs’ Hail Mary, desperation pass to the end zone as Jennings soared high to somehow pull the ball in truly what was an inexplicable finish to a football game.
Georgia finished with 392 yards total offense to the Volunteers’ 357 total. Michel, starting the game in place of the injured Nick Chubb (who did have one carry for 3 yards), ran for 91 yards on 16 carries while freshman Brian Herrien added 74 yards on 15 carries. Eason was 17-for-28 through the air for 211 yards and the two touchdowns but had the costly lost fumble in the end zone and also threw one interception while being sacked three times. Tight end Nauta continued the freshman heroics for Georgia this night by leading the Bulldog receivers with five catches for 83 yards including the 50-yard TD reception. Sophomore linebacker Natrez Patrick led the Georgia defense with 10 total tackles while junior corner Davis followed with eight stops and senior STAR Maurice Smith showed seven tackles as well as rendering a recovered fumble and a pick of Dobbs.
The Bulldogs will travel to Columbia next Saturday night for a 7:30 kick with Will Muschamp’s Gamecocks.
“I think our guys learned a valuable life lesson today,” said Smart, “how there are going to be some tough situations in life and it’s all about how you respond to them. I can tell you nobody’s going to feel sorry for us and we’ll get their (South Carolina’s) best effort next week. We have to get back to practice and practice tough and physical and somehow put this one behind us, as disappointing as it is.”