KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Yes, Georgia State was beaten 51-13 by Tennessee on Saturday.
While there are still many important things to worry about (an offense that has one touchdown in eight quarters; a secondary that’s having trouble covering), the Panthers had a few things to feel good about after the game. That doesn’t include the $500,000 they received to be a FCS-labeled chew toy for Smokey, the Vols’ mascot.
Georgia State kept the game close for 25 minutes until the Vols’ execution and a combination of inopportune penalties and fumbles undid its chances at an upset. But unlike their first two games against FBS opponents, losses to Alabama (63-7) in 2010 and Houston (56-0) last year, coach Bill Curry liked that his players weren’t intimidated playing in one of the biggest stadiums in college football in a game no one thought they could win.
“It’s a step forward but we need to keep closer a lot longer than that to have a chance,” coach Bill Curry said. “When it got out of hand we needed to keep fighting and we did.”
In the end, neither Georgia State’s offense or defense could keep up with a Tennessee team that was too big, too fast and too deep, showing some of the difference between a program that has been playing for more than 120 years and one that has been playing for three. The Vols scored 34 points in the second and third quarters and finished with 558 yards, but the Panthers did force two punts and created two turnovers. Even in the fourth quarter, when Georgia State could have rolled over, they made the Vols go to fourth and goal before they chalked up their final touchdown with 5:47 left.
“At the end of the day, we want to say that we played hard and we maxed out our effort,” defensive coordinator Anthony Midget said.
Even that wasn’t enough. In a sign of defiance that caused a few boos, Curry called two timeouts in the final seconds, trying to keep the game going instead of letting the Vols take a knee and run out the clock.
“We’re going to use everything we have,” he said. “We won’t ever let it go. If we get possession with four seconds left, we’re going to try to score another one because that’s what we are.”
Some wondered if this would be similar to Savannah State’s 84-point loss to Oklahoma State last week. Though the margin of defeat was nowhere that lopsided, there are plenty of things to worry about for the Panthers.
Ben McLane, a redshirt freshman making his second start, fumbled six times, several on the snap out of the shotgun formation.
“That’s on me,” he said. “I look at coverage sometimes…and I’m not exactly 100-percent focused on the snap. It’s something I got to keep focusing on and get those taken care of.”
One of those fumbles came on a play in the second half that would have resulted in a touchdown, exemplifying Curry’s point that the team has to eliminate mistakes. McLane dropped back with Albert Wilson streaking down field open. As McLane pulled the ball back, it slipped and flew backward. It was the second time in as many weeks that has occurred.
“That really hurt,” said McLane, who competed 18 of his 41 attempts for 176 yards. “Albert ran a great route. We had them.”
A week after giving up six sacks, the offensive line gave up three more, including one on second and goal at the 4-yard line in the first quarter. The offense finally broke through with its first touchdown of the season on the last possession of the game when McLane ran in from 12 yards out with 58 seconds remaining. Though it made no difference in the result, he said it did a lot for the team’s confidence.
“Just for our whole team, hopefully we can use that to get some momentum going into next week and for the whole season,” he said.
There are still issues on defense as well. The secondary, which was supposed to be the team’s strength, allowed 374 yards a week after giving up 300 to South Carolina State. The defensive backs weren’t helped by the line and linebackers, featuring numerous underclassmen, who couldn’t get close to Vols quarterback Tyler Bray, who completed 18 of his 20 attempts for 310 yards and four touchdowns. The defense didn’t have a sack for the second consecutive week.
But there were also glimpses of what the team could become when it becomes bowl eligible in 2014-15. McLane calmly led the team on a scoring drive on its first possession, whipping passes of 26 and 24 yards in between running for seven yards on fourth and one in a call that showed Curry didn’t bring his team three hours north to go through the paces. Sophomore kicker Christian Benvenuto didn’t miss a field goal. Freshman defensive tackle Joe Lockley had an interception. Freshman linebacker Joseph Peterson had nine tackles.
“There was much more grit and determination today than there was a week ago and there will be more next week and the next and the next,” Curry said. “That’s a promise. This group is going to be special.”
Tennessee rolled down the field on its first drive, taking a 7-0 led on a 1-yard run by Rajion Neal. The drive covered 78 yards in 4 minutes, 14 seconds.
Georgia State answered with a 32-yard field by Benvenuto on a drive in which Georgia State had first and goal on the Vols’ 3-yard line, but couldn’t capitalize with a touchdown. Offensive coordinator John Bond promised he would get Donald Russell and Wilson involved early, something that didn’t occur in the season-opening loss. Russell carried the ball several times, including a 26-yard run that set up the first and goal. Wilson had a catch for 24 yards and carries on a reverse for six yards. Curry even went for it fourth and one at the 49-yard line, securing the first down with a McLane sneak. It was the first points scored by Georgia State’s offense against a FBS opponent in three games.
The Vols missed a 38-yard field goal on their next possession.
The Panthers began to move the ball again on their next possession, with Russell running right for 11 yards and McLane finding Wilson for 9. But then Georgia State showed its nerves and the Vols showed their strength. McLane mishandled a shotgun snap on second and 1 for a loss of 14 yards, and the Vols overran the Panthers’ offensive line on third and 15, sacking McLane for a loss of 10 yards.
The Vols increased their lead to 14-3 with 10:58 left in the first half on a 19-yard touchdown pass from Bray to Mychal Rivera, who was left wide open on a play-action pass. The scoring pass was set up by a 35-yard punt return by Devrin Young.
Benvenuto kicked a 30-yard field goal to cut the margin to 14-6 with 5:37 left in the first half. The drive started when linebacker Mark Hogan forced a fumble and Terrance Woodard recovered on the Vols’ 41-yard line. McLane continued to look sharp, despite two of his best receivers, Danny Williams (DNP-ankle) and Jordan Giles (shoulder), off the field with injuries. Instead, he found Nathaniel Minor for 10 yards and later hit Lynquez Blair for eight yards.
Tennessee answered quickly, needing just four plays to take a 21-6 lead on a 25-yard scoring pass from Bray to Hunter, who was open because of play-action. The previous two plays, both runs by Neal, resulted in 30 yards to set up the touchdown pass.
The Vols made it 28-6 just before halftime with a 10-yard pass from Bray to Hunter. Tennessee needed three pass plays, including a 46-yard reception by Patterson, to cover 78 yards.
“I was really impressed with how our line held up, how our receivers played, and how our running backs played,” Wilson said. “I told them that if we have the same fight in us (from now on) that we’re going to have a great season.”
– Doug Roberson, AJC. Please follow me on twitter @ajcgsu