Knoxville — No Bulldog was seen wearing any hobnailed boots, and nobody ran over a Tennessee defender as emphatically as you-know-who did back in you-know-when. But this victory, achieved on the same field that had yielded two of the most famous comebacks in Georgia history, nevertheless pressed the accelerator on what is becoming a comeback season.
From 0-2, these Bulldogs have risen to 4-2 and have stamped themselves as South Carolina’s only real competitor in the SEC East. Next week brings a trip to Vanderbilt, and then two weeks later the Bulldogs will head to Jacksonville, where they figure to be favored against the hated Gators. No, nothing is assured, and yes, Carolina still has to lose again to give Georgia an opening, but it’s now possible that much can be made from this make-or-break season.
Saturday night’s game, was billed, incorrectly, as a meeting of equals. After the doings inside the big stadium on the banks of the winding river, nobody’s apt to make that mistake again. Tennessee isn’t in the the class of Georgia, which is, after an 0-2 start, stepping up in class.
The two sides were tied after a strange first half that featured one punt, no turnovers and no touchdowns. Then Georgia grabbed control of this game the way Mark Richt’s teams had in this big stadium in 2003 and 2005, back when the Bulldogs were …. well, the class of the SEC.
Todd Grantham’s suddenly ravenous defense came out of halftime and made another stop, abetted by a bad Vol shotgun snap. The Bulldogs drove to a touchdown, abetted by a pass interference call against Orson Charles. After another stop, the often-lampooned offensive coordinator Mike Bobo made an inspired call, Aaron Murry throwing deep off play-action from the Georgia 7. Seventy-one yards downfield, the freshman Malcolm Mitchell hauled in the pass.
And that was the moment that the difference in these teams showed: Tennessee is an OK team with OK coaches and OK talent. Georgia is — or at least should be — much better than that. If Georgia isn’t LSU or Alabama, neither is it the halting bunch that stood and watched Boise State score four consecutive touchdowns in the Dome five weeks ago.
After Mitchell’s catch, another freshman finished the drive. The heralded Crowell had been hit hard and rendered ineffective in a 14-yards-on-seven-carries first half, but in the second half he ran, if not quite like Herschel Walker on that glorious night in 1980, then at least like a top-shelf collegiate tailback. Crowell’s 17-yard sweep made it 20-6, and this defense wasn’t about to let a two-touchdown lead go to waste.
This isn’t to say the remaining 19 minutes would be all roses and romance. Four consecutive penalties halted Georgia’s surge toward a clinching field goal and left the Bulldogs facing second-and-57. (In the history of football, has any team ever faced second-and-57?) Then they hit Tennessee quarterback Tyler Bray so hard he had to exit — with a broken thumb, initial reports indicated — and his understudy Matt Simms converted on fourth-and-15 and finally notched a touchdown for the orange folks.
A statistical note: Apart from an Ole Miss double-reverse pass, Simms’ sneak marked the first touchdown against Grantham’s D since South Carolina’s Marcus Lattimore scored with 3:28 remaining on the night of Sept. 10 — four games ago. The 3-4 is working, folks. And the offense is getting better.
It was instructive that, after Tennessee finally scored its touchdown, the effect was dulled by safety Shawn Williams, who blocked the PAT. That left the Vols eight points in arrears with time flying, and the inevitable onside kick had no chance. It bounded out of bounds, and Richt had his 100th victory as Georgia’s coach.
“We had a great celebration in the locker room,” Richt told reporters. “It was a lot of fun. I’m very humbled at the way the players and coaches responded toward me. One hundred wins is kind of hard to believe.”
Lately Richt’s bunch has too often been the team that trips over itself. This time the Bulldogs made Tennessee be that ungainly team. This time Georgia, which sustained deflating losses here in 2007 and 2009, came to the big stadium on the banks of the winding river and left with a victory that points directly toward Jacksonville, and perhaps beyond.
By Mark Bradley