For nearly a half, Tennessee proved to be a dangerous threat to Georgia. Everything started far from expected for the nation’s No. 3 team.
A vulnerable pass defense was picked apart by Tennessee quarterback Brian Maurer, a true freshman making his first-ever start. He found receiver Marquez Callaway for a 73-yard touchdown strike. A cycle of Bulldog defensive backs were burnt on several completions, and Tennessee found ways to break through some tackles.
Neyland Stadium had reason to erupt on a rare occasion. The one-win team made Georgia’s head spin and had a brief one-point lead as Tennessee’s offensive performance was a far cry from a three-point showing at Florida. Maurer neared 200 yards and might’ve had some fans pleading for a statue alongside Phillip Fulmer Boulevard.
“We need to start better,” Georgia head coach Kirby Smart said. “They punched us in the face with the big play and we responded. That’s what you’re looking for in your team. It’s the first time some of our defensive players have taken that punch.”
As Georgia took possession with 4:02 remaining in the half, the offensive talent came alive. Georgia scored twice — including a 70-yard touchdown drive in a matter of 50 seconds — to close the second quarter and give the Bulldogs a two-score lead. Quarterback Jake Fromm nearly answered his opposing number punch-for-punch. He effectively led Georgia’s attack and found Lawrence Cager as his favorite target, which was proven with an acrobatic grab and a tricky touchdown catch.
“When we see adversity, we want to run straight at adversity,” Fromm said.
That late run led Georgia (5-0, 2-0 SEC) to a 43-14 win over Tennessee, but a victory over its lesser-talented throw didn’t come easy. Tennessee might not be on the brink of something special as head coach Kirby Smart claims, but it did give a scare to a team that’s trying to escalate past the same periphery.
Georgia’s defense had some flaws exposed with Callaway and wideout Jauan Jennings combining for 219 yards. Defensive back Mark Webb Jr. said the unit “hasn’t arrived yet,” and early showings validated his claim. A series of halftime adjustments, however, gave the Bulldogs another glimpse of potential by suffocating the Volunteers in the third quarter.
After allowing 239 yards in the first half (as much as Georgia had given up in some of its previous contests), Tennessee could only muster 15 yards in the third period. Outside linebacker Azeez Ojulari, named a captain for the first time, recorded two sacks (there’s that havoc) and Richard LeCounte recorded a pick after Maurer slowed his production and rotated with Tennessee’s Jarrett Guarantano.
Once the defense forced possession changes, the offense did enough to maintain a reasonable lead. Running back Zamir White, after not playing against Notre Dame, had a coming-out party with six carries and 52 yards (8.7 yards per carry). D’Andre Swift became a threat in the running and passing games with a combined 144 yards and a touchdown. Brian Herrien rounded out the running back trio with a tough 40-yard burst which involved bouncing off of multiple would-be tacklers.
“I thought all of our guys ran hard,” Smart said. “You can’t not mention Zamir White. You can’t not mention Brian and Swift as well. Those guys, they fight for their carries.”
Fromm complemented his playmakers with a 288-yard showing — a season-high, trailing 300+-yard performances as a freshman and sophomore — and two touchdowns. He accrued those numbers on an efficient 25 of 29 passing and threw a completion to nine different receivers.
One of the few offensive criticisms for Georgia was the inability to finish a few drives. It has been a recurring theme over recent weeks, but place-kicker Rodrigo Blankenship converted them into scoring opportunities. His season remains perfect with three conversions for the second-consecutive week.
By the scoreboard, Georgia exits Knoxville comfortably and can move onto hosting a pair of SEC opponents. But as the game unfolded, the Bulldogs were challenged.
Smart was right: every team in college football can be dangerous. Tennessee’s threat only proved to be temporary.
“I enjoy every win. They’re hard to come by, guys,” Smart said. “There’s a lot that goes into these games, especially this one. I’m happy for those kids in the locker room that bust their tails.”