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A beautiful night inside Neyland Stadium greeted the fans and players, as No.1 Georgia took on Tennessee in what was looking like an offensive shootout, early on.
It turned out to be a fantastic football game in the first half for Tennessee, as the Vols went 77 yards on their first drive, leading to the 7-0 lead. It was Velus Jones Jr. scoring on the nine yard touchdown pass from Hendon Hooker. The seven-point deficit was Georgia’s largest of the season, and it would only last for a certain period of time, as the Dawgs defeated Tennessee 41-17.
It was all Tennessee in the first quarter, as they racked up 159 yards in the quarter, with 98 yards coming from Hendon Hooker. But you could feel the Georgia defense starting to get into somewhat of a rhythm, after the Vols caught them in bad spots during the first twenty minutes. It finally felt like the Dawgs had woken up on defense, only allowing 25 total yards in the 2nd quarter.
As Tennessee led 10-7 heading into the second quarter, the Dawgs were setting up for a terrorizing effort for the next 15 minutes. Tennessee only gained 25 yards in the second quarter, while Georgia put up 191 yards of offense. It was Stetson Bennett who took over, going 10-17 for 122 yards and passing for one touchdown, while rushing for another. Georgia out-scored Tennessee 17-0 in the second quarter.
After scoring 10 points in the first quarter, Tennessee was held to just seven points for the remainder of the game. The Vols defense only gave up three points to Georgia during the third. The Dawgs rushed for 56 yards in the quarter, while only giving up 67 total yards. We saw a poised Bennett pick up a few first downs rushing the ball in the second half and he extended drives with well placed passes.
As for the Tennessee offense and how complicated it is with the fast pace, Kirby Smart knew his defense would be tested tonight, and it was all about how they responded against a different style of offensive scheme.
“Yea, I mean I think the better teams you play, the better you get,” Smart said about playing Tennessee. “Every week is a different test and this was a very distinctly different test. I mean, teams will see what they did and replicate some of that, but I am proud of the way we prepared for it. We had a defensive staff that burnt the midnight oil to prepare, because this is not an easy prep. Look at the teams they’ve played, they don’t have many low scoring totals.”
As for Tennessee, they gave Georgia a scare and were competitive in the passing game at times, but just didn’t make enough plays. Hendon Hooker was 12-15 for 98 yards and one touchdown in the first quarter, but only threw for 79 yards in the 2nd and 3rd quarter. This was uncharacteristic for this Tennessee team, especially with how much success they usually have down the field. Josh Heupel was asked after the game about Hendon Hooker overthrowing some passes and the mindset of the Vols quarterback.
“Whether that was juiced up or somebody not in the right position, or just the pressure they were getting at times and him being a little bit rushed inside the pocket. Whether the pressure was real or he was feeling the rush from previous plays, we were just a little bit off. The one interception was that and there were a couple other throws that sailed on him.”
To the credit of Tennessee, they only allowed Georgia to score three points in the third quarter, on two drives and sacked Stetson Bennett twice during the game.
The absence of Vols RB Tiyon Evans definitely hurt them tonight against Georgia, with Jabari Small getting most of the carries. What the Dawgs were able to do on defense is trust the front four to bring pressure, without having to bring extra defenders. This caused the Vols multiple problems on Saturday night, as they could never get into a groove, after the first twenty minutes.
Josh Heupel was pleased with how his team was prepared for the game though, but pointed out the key mistakes that would’ve given them a chance down the stretch.
“”Love the way our kids prepares, loved the way they competed, don’t question any of that. Against a good football team like that, you gotta make the plays or make some plays they give you a chance to play it down to the end. You lose the turnover battle 2-0, can’t do that and the red-zone offensively was not good enough, change those two things and you got a chance to play it down to the end.”
“Our kids know who and what they are, and what were building here,” Heupel added. “We will continue to fight.”
Back to Stetson Bennett, who was averaging 12 yards per pass. The quarterback got his sixth straight start of the season, while hitting seven receivers in the first half. It’s not just his ability to run the offense, it also comes down to his awareness and mobility when the pocket collapses.
We didn’t see much out of Georgia RB Zamir White, as he only had nine carries on the night, for 25 yards. This meant it was up to James Cook to carry the load for the Dawgs tonight, which he seemed comfortable doing, especially with his 23-yard touchdown pass from Bennett. Georgia head coach Kirby Smart was proud of the way the leadership stepped up within this football team.
“I can’t say enough about the leaders on this team. After that game against Missouri, to have three guys stand up in the locker room and say it was acceptable the way we approached the game, the way we handled the game, I knew right then we were going to be ok this week. I still worried a lot, but those guys said everybody better be there to lift, everybody better be on time and it just took over the team, and it permeated all week.”
“Tough place to play, the way the game started, they start that way on a lot of people,” Smart added. “We talked to our guys about taking their best shot. But we didn’t come up here to take shots, we came up here to throw them. Our offense came right back with a huge drive, which I thought was huge for us to start that way, to give our defense some confidence and let us get our feet underneath us.”
The Dawgs collected two turnovers on the night, both of them coming from Hendon Hooker, which just added to the problems. They only allowed seven points, after Tennessee’s Chase McGrath hit a FG in the first quarter.
Kirby Smart was complimentary of Tennessee and Josh Heupel, to start his postgame press conference.
“Hats off to Tennessee, I think they have a really good football team, I think Josh (Heupel) has done a great job. A tremendous atmosphere to play a college football game in, I was really impressed with that.”
The biggest playmaker of the night for Tennessee continues to be Cedric Tillman, who had 10 receptions for 200 yards and one touchdown. He’s been the one of the biggest downfield threats the Vols have had all season and I don’t expect that to stop in the remaining two games.
If you’re Tennessee, there is no shame in what happened against Georgia tonight, as we’ve seen from every team they’ve faced this season, the defense is just very good. The Dawgs out-gained the Vols 273-65 on the ground, while Georgia ran 78 total plays on the night.
While the Vols offense is explosive, the Georgia defense was again able to pull the firing pin out of the grenade, which they’ve done for most of the season.
Asked what he thought they needed to do to continue closing the gap with a team like Georgia, Josh Heupel was very candid in his answer.
“Gotta continue to compete, continue to grow. Our kids aren’t scared of walking out on the football field against anybody and neither are our coaches. We’re gonna continue to recruit, continue to build the right culture inside the building. We’ll be in more of these games and we’ll end up on the right side of them too, as we continue to grow.”
Tennessee will move on to its final two games, looking to become bowl eligible, while Georgia is still on a run towards the playoffs. These are two programs, with two different aspirations for the remainder of the season, in which they can both be successful with their goals.