All week, the talk of Georgia vs. Tennessee was on Tennessee’s explosive and unique offense facing a Georgia defense that most consider the best in the country.
Earlier, Georgia head coach Kirby Smart compared the Volunteers’ offense to the triple option, not in actual style, but with how unique it is and how rare it is to face an offense that Tennesee possesses. The Vols play fast…like really fast. They also spread guys out way beyond the numbers, which has led quarterback Hendon Hooker to much success this season.
It was a tough start for Georgia’s defense as Tennessee drove right through them on the first drive but in-game adjustments helped Georgia settle down and again show why they are the top-ranked team in college football.
“I’m proud of the way we prepared for it,” said Smart. “We’ve got a defensive staff that burnt the midnight oil to prepare. This is not an easy prep. You look at the teams [Tennessee] has played, they don’t have many low-scoring totals. To give up the first drive and then come back and do a good job the rest of the second half… I’m proud of the way our guys played defensively.”
A busted coverage on the second play from scrimmage nearly gave Tennessee a 72-yard touchdown. Hooker just barely overthrew Velus Jones Jr.’s outstretched arms, giving Georgia a chance at a deep breath but also room to worry.
The Volunteers still ended up scoring a touchdown first on a 10-play, 77-yard drive, and had a 10-7 lead at the end of the first quarter. Tennessee had already amassed 159 total yards and looked like a team that could give Georgia problems with the spacing from the Vols’ receivers.
Georgia decided to move Christopher Smith from the safety position to STAR, Georgia’s version of a nickel cornerback and brought in Dan Jackson at safety. This took out the struggling Latavious Brini and from there the Bulldogs’ defense appeared to be back on track.
“Chris [Smith] is a very versatile player, Dan has been playing well,” said Smart after the game. “We felt that we worked that hard during the week to try and get some depth… we repped Chris there during the week thinking it could help us. Chris has got some good man-to-man ability and we had to play kind of a different style defense this week. I thought the changes we made really helped us.”
The man-to-man play put a lot of defensive responsibility on Georgia’s defensive backs, which was expected. And it went back and forth, both starting corners Derion Kendrick and Kelee Ringo were flagged for pass interference. Kendrick also ended up with an interception and six tackles.
With that, it also put pressure on UGA’s inside linebackers to control Hooker and the Tennessee run game. They ended up being the stars of the show defensively. Nakobe Dean, Channing Tindall and Quay Walker combined for 25 tackles and four sacks, three of which came from Tindall.
“We did a great job of practicing,” said Dean. “That’s what they do, they go fast. We just needed to get that first drive out of our system. We’re trying to push to start fast and finish even faster.”
The 17 points Tennessee scored on Georgia were the most anyone has scored on the Bulldogs defense. South Carolina and Kentucky both scored 13 points against Georgia. On the other side of the ball, Georgia found success in the run game after a disappointing effort against Missouri.
Right guard Warren Ericson dealt with the flu this week, forcing Georgia to go with Xavier Truss early in the contest. Once Truss came in, Georgia started opening some big holes for its backs. James Cook was the featured back on Saturday, racking up 147 total yards and three touchdowns.
“He’s been due for that kind of game,” said Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett. “He comes in, leads this team, works hard. He’s explosive, knows what to do and has a knack for finding space.”
With the win over Tennessee, Georgia completed a perfect 8-0 record in the SEC for the first time since joining the conference. Now the Bulldogs will have two weeks to get ready for the SEC Championship while facing Charleston Southern on senior day and Georgia Tech in Atlanta, where most fans will probably be in red and black.