The Georgia Bulldogs and head coach Kirby Smart were happy they could bounce back from a mistake-filled win over Missouri the previous weekend and stage a solid performance on both offense and defense in a 38-12 pasting of the Tennessee Volunteers Saturday at Sanford Stadium.
But in pushing their season record up to 5-0 and SEC ledger to 3-0, the Bulldogs realized they were far from perfect against a Tennessee team that, after all, came to town with one-sided losses to West Virginia and Florida on their record and their only two wins coming against East Tennessee State and UTEP. They know that against the LSUs, Floridas, Kentuckys and Auburns lying ahead on the schedule many of the mistakes committed in the Bulldogs’ first SEC home game can’t be repeated, that is, if the undefeated mark is to remain intact.
“Our guys played hard; we just didn’t always play smart,” said Smart. “We had too many undisciplined penalties. We picked up a fumble for a touchdown. It bounced up lucky. If not for that, it would’ve been an even tighter game,” he said.
Smart was alluding to junior tight end Isaac Nauta scooping up a fumble by quarterback Jake Fromm and tallying the Bulldogs’ first touchdown on a tackle-breaking 31-yard run to the end zone.
“You can’t make excuses,” said Smart. “We need to execute. Lack of execution gets you beat. We’ve worked hard in practice the last two weeks. There were no practices where we took time off. We just want better execution in game moments … we struggled at times. We didn’t hit some of the plays we thought we could have. We must execute at a higher level to be successful. There were times when we didn’t have much movement up front.”
Still, there were some things Smart liked about the Bulldogs’ showing, which saw them click for 441 yards of offense while limiting the Vols to just 209 yards, which included a meager 66 yards net rushing by Tennessee.
“When we had to play well in the second half, we challenged them and they did so,” the third-year Georgia coach said. “It’s big when you answer a challenge, but it shouldn’t have to come to that. We preach good habits, competitiveness, physicality.”
Although the Bulldogs rang up a 17-0 halftime advantage and then pushed their lead up to 24-0 in the third quarter, the Vols then got 37 and 35-yard touchdown passes from quarterback Jarrett Guarantano and actually pulled within 24-12 of Georgia with still over 11 minutes left in the game. But at that juncture is when the Bulldogs went about the business of salting the game away, driving the ball down the UT defense’s throat with a 75-yard, 13-play march that ate up 7:39 of the clock and resulted in a 14-yard touchdown run by D’Andre Swift.
Georgia then added insult to injury by getting a 15-yard touchdown run from freshman quarterback Justin Fields … Fields’ second score of the game coming two plays after Juwan Taylor recovered a Vols’ fumble at the Tennessee 31-yard line.
Sophomore inside linebacker Monty Rice, who recorded five tackles in the win after sitting out the Missouri game with an injury, was asked what was said among the defense after Tennessee cut the lead to 24-12.
“’Keep choppin,’” replied Rice. “They made a play, but there’s nothing you can do about it once it already happened. You can just go ahead and play the next snap. We did, and Juwan recovered the fumble. “Then (the offense) did what they’re supposed to do (75-yard scoring drive),” said Rice. “Even if they didn’t do that, we just had to go back out there and stop them.”
Offensively, the Bulldogs dialed up a good run-pass balance Saturday, rushing for 251 yards and passing for 190 more. Elijah Holyfield again led the way with 78 yards on 16 carries and Brian Herrien and Swift followed with 56 and 50 yards, respectively, Herrien especially twisting and bulling for key first downs on the Georgia scoring drive that pushed the lead back up to 31-12.
“Today was just a more ‘ground and pound’ kind of game,” said Fromm, who completed 16-of-22 attempts for 185 yards while sharing time with Fields, who ran for 45 yards in just five carries including his scoring runs of 12 and 15 yards. “That’s what we needed from up front. The outside guys, you won’t ever necessarily see this on the stat sheet, but they were working hard on the outside with blocks and transitioning to get in front of somebody and blocking somebody. I thought they did a really good job today, and when we were throwing the ball, they were there.
Of his fumble and Nauta’s 31-yard scoring jaunt in the opening quarter, Fromm said: “I had no idea. I got hit, I think I fell down. I stood up and heard the crowd cheer and was like, ‘What the heck is going on?’ He broke a tackle and I still couldn’t believe it when I was coming off the sideline. I had to look up at the board and see what the heck happened. Really thankful the ball fell our way on that one … No, we didn’t practice that one.”
“As fun of a play as it ended up being, it’s probably going to be a minus on the old grade sheet,” said Nauta, referring to a block he missed on the play that caused his quarterback to get hit and lose the football. “Yeah, that’s the longest rush I’ve ever had,” he said. “Might need to let me get the ball a little bit more in the backfield. Actually, let’s not do that … I’ve never seen a play like that happen before. It was kind of fun to be a part of something like that, but it’s not the way you want it to happen.”
In the Tennessee dressing room, Vols head coach Jeremy Pruitt couldn’t say enough about the team he once served as defensive coordinator.
“To start with, Georgia’s got a really good football team,” Pruitt said. “They’re very sound. They’re good on both sides of the line of scrimmage. They have speed, skilled positions on both sides, have a very good quarterback, two really good quarterbacks, good runners, their tight ends are physical, they can also get out on the perimeter. They’ve got good linebackers, got guys that can rush the quarterback, got guys that can play man-to-man in the backend. So, when you take the culmination of those types of athletes, it makes you good on special teams,” said Pruitt. “They’ve got good returners, Mecole (Hardman)’s a good returner, Terry (Godwin)’s a good returner. I thought our guys did a fantastic job today, kicking the ball away from them. Then you talk about how they’re well coached. They have an experienced team, you know. Coming off the field, there’s so many guys, my last year was 2015, some of these guys I got to see for the first time in a long time.”
Pruitt also liked the way his football team bounced back from a disastrous, six-turnover loss to Florida and made Georgia work for everything it got Saturday.
“I’ll say this about our football team,” he said. “I said it last week, there were a lot of guys who played their best game last week for us and it was hard to tell that because we turned the football over. I said I thought I saw the right look in some of the guys’ eyes and I wasn’t wrong. Those same guys came out here today, they practiced this week hard and they didn’t let up.”
Next up for the unbeaten, 2nd-ranked Bulldogs, the Vanderbilt Commodores who come to Sanford Stadium for the annual homecoming game next Saturday evening.
“Vanderbilt is well coached, they have a good defensive coach, they have a physical football team,” said Smart. “I have respect for Vanderbilt. Their kids play hard. We need to prepare, but it’s not about Vanderbilt, it’s about us. We need to go out and improve.”