KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Mark Richt won his 100th career game as Georgia’s head coach at the same place he recorded his first signature victory.
The Bulldogs pulled out a 20-12 victory over Tennessee Saturday night before a sell-out crowd of 102,455 at Neyland Stadium, where Larry Munson introduced the world to the hobnail boot. And Georgia nearly made it as dramatic.
The outcome was uncertain until Tennessee quarterback Matt Sims was sacked on the game’s final play. But that did nothing to quell the postgame celebration, which was said to rival the one Georgia had here 10 years ago almost to the day.
“We’re happy,” Richt said well after the locker room had cleared. “We had a great celebration after the game and it was a lot of fun. I’m very humbled at the way the players and coaches responded to me. One hundred victories is kind of hard to believe. But they belong to everyone that has played here and coached. To win here is very difficult to do.”
Made even more difficult when you lose 46 yards on two downs.
That’s what happened to the Bulldogs when they were flagged for three holding penalties and a facemask early in the fourth quarter. At the time they were eyeing first-and-10 at the Tennessee 23 and contemplating going up by at least three more points, which would have put them ahead three scores. Instead, Georgia ended up facing second-and-56 at its own 33. Two plays later they punted back to the Vols on fourth-and-58.
“I hate that there was that much drama at the end,” Richt said, now able to laugh about it, “but that’s what happens when you get fourth-and-58.”
Nevertheless, the victory was the fourth in a row for the Bulldogs (4-2, 3-1 SEC), who suddenly find themselves tied with South Carolina for the SEC Eastern Division lead. It was Georgia’s first win at Neyland Stadium since 2005.
The Gamecocks face road tests at Mississippi state, Tennessee and Arkansas in their next three games. The Bulldogs will be back in Tennessee next week to face Vanderbilt (3-2, 1-2), then get an off week before traveling to Jacksonville to face Florida.
Tennessee falls to 3-2 and 0-2 in the SEC.
Georgia broke open the game with a pair of touchdown runs by Isaiah Crowell in the third quarter. The Bulldogs’ defense, which has played so well in recent weeks, made it stand up. Crowell finished with 58 yards on 18 carries. Quarterback Aaron Murray was 15-of-25 passing for 227 yards.
“I expected it to be a war and it was,” Crowell said. “It was very physical, but we came out with the W and that’s all that matters.”
Crowell came out of the game with wrist and ankle injuries.”It’s all right,” the freshman from Columbus said. “It feels a lot better after a win. I’ll be ready to go next week.”
Georgia also lost dynamic freshman wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell in the game. Mitchell pulled a hamstring a 73-yard reception that turned out to be the most critical play in the game. He finished with three catches for 128 yards but could not play the game’s final 20 minutes.
“We don’t think he just blew it up,” Richt said of Mitchell. “He wanted to go back in. We’re hopeful he’ll be back by the Florida game. That’s what we hope.”
Tennessee lost starting quarterback Tyler Bray to a broken thumb in the fourth quarter.
Georgia’s defense was the main reason the Bulldogs were able to escape with victory. They held Tennessee to minus-20 yards rushing, recorded two sacks and kept the Vols’ quarterbacks under pressure throughout.
“I think the guys have gotten more confidence as we’ve gone along,” defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said. “We’ve played a lot of players. We’ve had safeties playing linebacker, we’ve had linebackers playing outside and inside. We actually had Abry Jones playing outside [linebacker] some today, just because of where we are with our depth because of injuries. I’m real proud of the way they’re playing and their efforts.”
Georgia was able to overcome some sloppy play in the fourth quarter in which it was penalized five times for 48 yards after reaching the Tennessee 23-yard line. Instead of at least getting a field goal that would have forged a three-score lead, the Bulldogs had to punt the ball from their own 31 on fourth-and-58.
Tennessee scored on a one-yard sneak by Matt Sims with 2:45 to play. It was just the second touchdown Georgia’s defense had allowed in the last 16 quarters. But Shawn Williams blocked the ensuing point-after attempts and the Bulldogs took over at the Tennessee 35 after the Vols onside kick went out of bounds.
With Tennessee out of timeouts, Georgia was able to run out clock before punting with 18 seconds remaining. The Vols took over at their own 20 and the game ended with Jarvis Jones sacking quarterback Matt Sims. Sims was in the game because starting quarterback Tyler Bray had been sidelined with a hand injury on the previous possession.
“We’re able to laugh about it now,” said quarterback Aaron Murray, who had 227 yards on 15-of-25 passing. “I wasn’t sure what we’d call on third-and-57, a take-off or what. We don’t want to do that. Our defense was playing great and we could have put it out of reach right there. We just have to learn from our mistakes.”
Georgia’s fortunes turned midway through the third quarter. Marlin Lane was awarded a touchdown on a 66-yard catch-and-run on third-and-long. But a protracted video review by officials determined that Lane’s knee was down on a tackle by linebacker Michael Gilliard at the Tennessee 47, three yards shy of a first down.
So instead of a touchdown, the Vols punted and Georgia took over at its own 7-yard line. Three plays later, the Bulldogs went ahead 20-6 on a 17-yard run by Crowell. The score was set up by Murray’s 73-yard strike to Mitchell on first down at Georgia’s 7.
“There was a discussion on what to do there,” Richt said. “There was that play or try to knock it out of there running the football. Mike [Bobo] wanted to throw that because he felt their coverage was going to give us the post. I said, ‘do it; throw Birmingham.’”
“I’ll be making sure Malcolm’s in the rehab room,” Murray joked. “That was the biggest play of the day. To get us down there to the 20 or so and then bunch it in right there changed the whole game right there.”