Tennessee, at 1-3 with losses to Georgia State and Brigham Young as well as a blowout defeat at Florida, seemed to have little to be optimistic about entering Saturday night’s contest with the 3rd-ranked Georgia Bulldogs.
But given new life by a promising freshman quarterback making his first start for the Volunteers Tennessee — a whopping 25-point underdog in its own Neyland Stadium — put on a new identity in the first half Saturday, outplaying the Bulldogs into the opening minutes of the second quarter when the Vols commanded a 14-10 lead.
Tennessee quarterback Brian Maurer riddled the Bulldog defense for touchdown passes of 73 (to Marquez Callaway) and 12 yards (Jauan Jennings) in that stretch, scores that awakened the Vol Nation and had them dreaming of a monumental upset of Kirby Smart’s Dawgs.
But facing that four-point deficit early in the second period, Georgia pulled within 14-13 on Rod Blankenship’s 34-yard field goal — he earlier drilled a 50-yarder — and then surged on to a 26-14 halftime lead on Jake Fromm’s 3-yard scoring pass to Lawrence Cager and Fromm’s 7-yard touchdown pass to George Pickens … the last score capping a rapid-fire 70-yard march, the drive starting with only 50 seconds left in the quarter and taking just five plays.
The second half? It was all Georgia as the Bulldogs shut out the Vols over the final two periods while cashing 17 additional points themselves to walk out of Knoxville with a 43-14 spanking of Tennessee.
Fromm was never better in leading the Bulldogs out of the second-quarter deficit and helping Georgia climb to 5-0 on the season and 2-0 in the SEC. The junior quarterback, time and again, completed clutch passes for first downs and finished the night 24-of-29 through the air for 288 yards and the two touchdowns … with no interceptions. In the first half, Fromm drilled 16 of his 20 attempts for 195 yards.
Cager again paced the receiving corps with five catches for 58 yards and the touchdown, and he had one scoring catch of 25 yards erased due to being whistled for offensive pass interference. D’ Andre Swift, in addition to his 72-yard, 17-carry rushing effort, showed four receptions for 72 yards.
And the Bulldogs balanced that aerial attack with 238 rushing yards. Senior Brian Herrien headed the ground game this time as he plowed for 88 yards on just 11 carries including a career-long 40-yard run. In addition to Herrien and Swift, redshirt freshman Zamir White was back on the field and bulled for 57 yards on seven carries.
“Whoever’s number was called tonight, they made plays,” Fromm said. “It’s pretty easy when guys are getting open like that.”
“Coach Smart said that may happen,” Cager said of Georgia falling behind. “We knew Tennessee was a great team, even though their record might not reflect it. He asked us, if the game goes that way, how are you going to respond? I think the team as a whole did a great job of responding today.”
Herrien’s 1-yard scoring run with 8:02 remaining built the Bulldogs’ lead to 36-14 and Georgia’s final touchdown, with just 4:39 remaining, came when cornerback Eric Stokes separated Maurer from the football and senior linebacker Tae Crowder — the former prep running back — scooped it up and sped 60 yards down the sideline to the Vols’ end zone.
Blankenship’s third field goal of the night, a 27-yarder with 7:03 remaining in the third quarter, provided the Bulldogs with their other score in the 17-point second half.
“We knew they would come ready to play,” said Smart. “They had a week off and they have a good football team. They came out and played physical, and so did we…Our kids came back and played hard. They came out in the second half and played a lot harder.
“We took a punch there in the gut with the bomb, but they responded well,” said Smart, alluding to the Maurer-to Callaway 73-yard touchdown pass in the opening quarter. “But they kept fighting and kept playing hard, created some turnovers in the second half. We didn’t start the way we wanted tonight, especially not defensively,” he said. “But offensively, I thought Jake did a really nice job and (James) Coley (offensive coordinator) called a really nice game and changed some things up.”
Being blanked completely by the Georgia defense in the second half, the Volunteers would finish with just 70 yards net rushing but with 273 passing, most of that coming in the first half. In his first start, the freshman Maurer would complete 14-of-28 attempts for 259 yards and the two scores. He was picked off once, by Bulldog safety Richard LeCounte in the third quarter.
Georgia’s balanced defensive showing was led by LeCounte who recorded five tackles and the interception, and fellow defensive back Mark Webb also notched five stops in the win. Then came senior safety J.R. Reed and junior linebacker Monty Rice with four tackles each. Redshirt freshman outside linebacker Azeez Ojulari had two sacks of Maurer while cornerback Stokes also recorded a sack. With the Bulldogs continually meeting the Vol running backs at the line of scrimmage, or in the UT backfield, LeCounte, Reed, Stokes, Ojulari, Nate McBride, Walter Grant, Julian Rochester, Michael Barnett, Malik Herring, Quay Walker, David Marshall and Tae Crowder all showed up on the tackles-for-lost list.
What perhaps kept this game tighter than Georgia fans wanted it to be in the first half was a plethora of penalty flags being thrown for Bulldog infractions. For the night, Georgia drew 11 penalties for a total of 107 yards — some of them quite questionable — but clearly something a team with championship aspirations can’t have.
The Bulldogs now will entertain South Carolina (2-3, 1-2 SEC) next Saturday at high noon at Dooley Field at Sanford Stadium.