The No. 3 Georgia Bulldogs overcame a sloppy first half on both sides of the ball to score 27 unanswered points in the final two quarters to stomp the No. 14 Tennessee Volunteers, 44-21. It was a whole team effort in the second half as the Bulldogs’ defense held the Vols scoreless, while the offense improved as the game went on.
The Vols were held to just 214 yards of total offense while finishing with a rush total of negative one. Georgia’s defense also held Tennessee to just 4 of 17 on third down, while the Vols did convert 2 of 3 fourth down conversions. On the other hand, Georgia’s offense put up 431 yards with 238 through the air and 193 on the ground.
Bennett finished the game completing 16 of 27 passes for 238 yards and two scores. Tennessee’s Jarrett Guarantano finished the game by completing 23 of 36 passes for 215 yards with two touchdowns and an interception. Guarantano was also the victim to a stingy Georgia defense that forced two fumbles with one leading to a touchdown.
“I thought they stopped the run pretty well the whole day,” Guarantano said after the game. “In the first half we were able to take advantage of them in the pass game. In the second half they made some good adjustments and they came in and played a lot of cloud defense, some cover 2 and they were able to stop the run and the pass.”
Although it was a huge statement win for the Bulldogs, the first half wasn’t so pretty.
Georgia head coach Kirby Smart would agree with that statement.
“I certainly didn’t expect it to go that way,” Smart said. “We didn’t start the way we needed to. We’ve got to show a lot of improvement in a lot of areas and just disappointed in our start to the game. Anytime you spot somebody seven [points], that’s not good. We gave up some explosive plays on defense. But the positives were we didn’t blink, we’ve got a very emotional team and I thought in the locker room, there were a lot of emotions shown.”
Georgia’s veteran center Trey Hill had his third botched snap of the season, which led to a Tennessee touchdown on the second play of the game.
The Bulldogs got the ball right back and quarterback Stetson Bennett found Kearis Jackson on third down for a gain of 17 yards. A few plays later, Bennett was sacked on another third down forcing Georgia to punt.
Georgia’s defense held the Vols to a three-and-out and the offense punched right back by scoring on the very next drive. They did so by getting constant pressure on Tennessee quarterback Jarrett Guarantano. Credit Jordan Davis and Devonte Wyatt with the constant applied pressure on Guarantano.
Georgia sophomore running back Kenny McIntosh got the first two carries of the drive totaling 18 yards. Bennett missed wide receiver George Pickens on second down and was hit hard by Tennessee defensive lineman Deandre Johnson. Upon further review, Johnson was initially called for a late hit, but was then ejected for targeting.
A few plays later Bennett found McIntosh for a 29-yard gain through the air, setting up Georgia inside the Tennessee 2-yard line. That connection led to redshirt sophomore Zamir White walking into the endzone for six. Placekicker Jack Podlesny connected on the PAT leading to a 7-7 score with 6:38 to go in the first quarter.
The Bulldogs started its 94-yard scoring drive on their own with 2:57 left to go in the first quarter that extended to the second. McIntosh and White put together some impressive runs, but it was Bennett who had the best of all. He extended a play on third-and-seven with his legs to set up Georgia inside the Tennessee 10-yard line. Then when being chased out of the pocket on the next play, Bennett reached for the pylon by extending his body for his first rushing score of the year.
“Tennessee was a really good football team,” Bennett said after the game. T”hey are physical. They knew what their strengths and weaknesses were, and they played to them. They are a really good football team. The first run was just a scramble. I got a good block from George [Pickens] on that side. The second play, Coach Monken was feeling my legs. My o-line blocked it up well. I guess I got in the end-zone? It was pretty close on the pylon. But, just two back-to-back runs and I got good blocks.”
That physicality from the Vols continued as the first half went on.
The Vols were finally able to score on offense following a failed Georgia fourth down attempt, which was a questionable play call by Smart. Bennett tried rushing up the middle, but was stopped short and that led to Guarantano finding receiver Josh Palmer on a 36-yard pass over the head of DJ Daniel. Palmer made an athletic grab to waltz into the endzone, and that score tied the game at 14 apiece.
Georgia was able to move the ball on the next drive, but the Tennessee defense was able to hold them to a field goal. On the ensuing possession, a senseless penalty by Pickens cost the Bulldogs’ defense 15-yards that led to another Tennessee touchdown. Guarantano found Palmer again on a 27-yard strike over defender Tyson Campbell that gave the Vols to lead 21-17. At that point, it seemed like the Vols had found a rhythm and clear mis-match on that side of the field.
Tennessee was able to stop Georgia short on fourth down again, which happened to be the final play of the first half. Georgia out-gained the Vols by 82 yards in the first half on offense, but trailed 21-17. Tennessee was held to just 19 yards on the ground in the first half while their other 124 were through the air. Georgia’s offense seemed pretty balanced with 128 passing yards and 97 rushing yards in the first 30-minutes.
Going into halftime, Bennett felt confident despite being down four points.
“You feel so bad going into halftime getting stopped on a first and one on the goal line and the points that we spotted them,” Bennett said. “We had to keep our head up. Coach [Todd] Monken, reminded us, ‘hey man they haven’t stopped us yet.’ We just have to keep going and get that train rolling.”
The second half was a much different story for the Bulldogs as they improved vastly on both sides of the ball.
“I think we’re a well-conditioned team and our team has taken pride in the conditioning level,” Smart said. “I think we’ve got a team that adjusts well, so if somebody’s giving us trouble with something, we have answers, we don’t just continue to do the same thing if we’re struggling with things. I’m proud of the effort they came out with in the second half with the momentum the defense created. We’re not executing at a high level and that can cause problems; that’s special teams, that’s defensive execution on fastball exchanges, that’s offensively getting lined up, getting in a formation and getting a call. That can be costly if you play a team that can capitalize on them.”
The Vols started the second half with a fumble on third down by Guarantano forced by Georgia’s Azeez Ojulari. The Bulldogs took over with great field position, but were held to a field goal because of a chop block penalty committed by right guard Ben Cleveland. Podlesny booted a 33-yarder good for his second made attempt of the game.
The next time out, Georgia forced an interception with Eric Stokes coming up with his second of the season. Georgia’s Tyrique Stevenson came flying in on a screen pass, while Guarantano heaved it up to be picked off by Stokes. The offense was forced to another three-and-out, but Podlesny nailed a 51-yard field goal to give the Bulldogs a 23-21 lead.
Georgia’s defense kept the pressure on Tennessee throughout the remainder of the third quarter. The Bulldogs extended their lead on the final drive of the quarter when Bennett connected to Kearis Jackson for a 21-yard score on third and seven.
Earlier in the possession, the drive was kept alive by Trey Hill as Jackson fumbled the ball after a 20-yard reception. Hill was in the right place at the right time as the ball took a fortunate bounce into his hands. That touchdown reception was Jackson’s first career touchdown grab as a Bulldog, and third reception of the game at that point.
The duo connected again in the fourth for a 33-yard gain to put the Bulldogs inside the 10-yard line. White ran the ball for six yards before Bennett connected with freshman defensive lineman Jalen Carter for a one-yard touchdown pass on a bootleg. That jumbo-package led score gave the Bulldogs a 44-21 lead with 10:31 left.
Bennett said the chemistry between him and Jackson is strong because they trust each other.
“He plays the game hard,” Bennett said. “He gets open. It is easy to throw him the ball because he catches it. I don’t go looking for him, I don’t go really looking for anybody because I just like to use everyone. But he is open a lot. And he catches my eye and I trust him.”
Georgia’s second half dismantling of Guarantano continued when senior inside linebacker Monty Rice sacked him from behind and recovered the fumble for a score. That was Tennessee’s third turnover of the second half and all were by Guarantano. The Vols had zero turnovers coming into the contest, but Georgia forced that trio in the second half.
John Palmer was limited in the second half as well by Georgia’s secondary.
“They just came out better in the second half,” Palmer said. “Honestly, we just have to stop shooting ourselves in the foot by making dumb mistakes. But they were just a better team in the second half..”They are strong upper guys. They hit you on all cylinders. They just came out better in the second half. They just took over.”
Rice led the team with eight total tackles, one sack and two tackles for loss followed by Ojulari and Quay Walker with five tackles, respectively. The Bulldogs were able to sack Guarantano five times throughout the contest, which is the most to date. The unit had two sacks against Arkansas in the season opener, and three last week against Auburn. Ojulari and junior inside linebacker Channing Tindall had two sacks apiece.
“We know we are a second-half team,” Ojulari said. “We had to come out and just play our game and continue to execute—follow the plan, get the job done.”
Ojulari said the defense feeds off one another’s energy.
“Definitely. We feed off of each other’s energy, definitely. Once anyone makes a big play it boosts the other teammates and all of our plays. It gets everyone going—everyone is hype and ready to go out there and execute. It’s huge to go big play after big play after big play.”
Bennett was able to connect with nine different receivers with Jackson leading the way again. He hauled in four passes for 91 yards and a score followed by tight end Tre’ McKitty with two receptions for 47 yards. McIntosh finished third with two grabs for 36 yards with a long of 29 yards. Pickens was held to just two receptions for 14 yards.
The Bulldogs were led by freshman running back Kendall Milton on the ground with eight carries for 56 yards. He drew comparisons to former Georgia tailback Nick Chubb on some of his runs, especially in the fourth quarter. White followed with 20 carries for 50 yards a score with McIntosh behind tallying 45 yards on three attempts. Freshman receiver Jermaine Burton had Georgia’s longest run of the day for a 43-yard gain on an end-around. The Bulldogs rushed for 193 total yards while averaging 3.9 yards per attempt.
The Bulldogs now will face No. 2 Alabama next week in Tuscaloosa with the game time yet to be determined.
Statement from Jeremy Pruitt after the game….
“First of all, I would just like to give credit to Georgia. I thought they really outplayed us there in the second half. When you look at the game, of course you learn a lot when you look at the tape, but you can’t turn the ball over three times against anybody and expect to win. We turned the ball over three times in the second half, once for a defensive score and twice, I don’t think they [Georgia] got any first downs and kicked field goals. So, there’s 13 points there that really changed the game. We made a lot of mistakes on the defensive side, especially on third down. That’s on me. That’s not on anyone else, that’s on me. I learned a long time ago that you have to be able to do what your players can do. If they can’t do it then you got to do a better job of coaching them up, and I have to do a better job of that. Offensively, we created a couple of explosive plays in the first half, but in the second half we didn’t control the line of scrimmage, played behind the sticks and we have to be more explosive, got to be able to run the ball. We also didn’t really create any plays in the special teams.”
Video from Kirby Smart’s postgame presser: