KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Upset-minded Tennessee went from pure ecstasy to mind-boggling heartache Saturday against sixth-ranked Georgia. By a fingertip.
After an the Vols’ Alton Howard had a touchdown run wiped off the books on a television review, Georgia’s Marshall Morgan kicked a 42-yard field goal to give the Bulldogs a harrowing 34-31 victory over the courageous Vols before 102,455 fans at a rockin’ Neyland Stadium and with a national television audience looking in.
“You saw a football team, undermanned, that laid it on the line,” Vols coach Butch Jones said. “This team has become closer than any team I’ve been a part of and they hurt, but we’re going to keep grinding.”
Georgia (4-1, 3-0) won the toss and chose defense to start the overtime period. On second-and-goal from the 7, Howard skirted right end, darted down the near sideline and dived toward the end zone pylon. Referees signaled touchdown.
However, on review, the replays clearly showed Howard lost control of the ball just inches from the goal line, it skipped out of the end zone and the play was ruled a touchback. Georgia ball.
“He’s trying to make a play and unfortunately it slipped out of his hands, but we wouldn’t be in a situation to win the game without Alton Howard’s effort today.”
Howard rushed for 46 yards, caught four passes for 70 yards and provided the Vols with an offensive spark that caused the Bulldogs’ defense considerable consternation when he went in motion before the snap.
Following Howard’s deflating fumble, Georgia couldn’t make a first down on its possession, but Morgan, who kicked a record-setting 56-yard field goal –longest ever against a Tennessee team (3-3, 0-2) and the longest in Neyland Stadium history – for the game’s first score, was true from 42 on the game-winner.
“I really don’t have much to say other than I’m thankful we won,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “I’m thankful we’re leaving and I got my bag packed.”
Tennessee trailed 17-3 at halftime, but came out for the second half in an upbeat frame of mind, ready to challenge a team that had won the previous three meetings in the tightly played series – Tennessee leads it, 21-20-2.
And quarterback Justin Worley, whose struggles cost him the starting job for the Florida game before regaining the role when his replacement, Nathan Peterman, suffered a hand injury in the Florida game, started looking like a real quarterback.
“I have to give him credit,” Jones said. “How old is he? Twenty-one? How many 21-year-olds could go through the last couple of weeks he’s gone through. He’s a competitor, worked very hard and I thought he took some steps moving forward today.”
Worley hit freshman Marquez North on the side end zone boundary with a brilliantly thrown strike – North made an equally sensational catch – on a touchdown play covering 19 yards to pull the Vols within 17-10. For North it was his first career touchdown and he became the eam’s fifth true freshman to score a touchdown this season.
Worley completed 17-of-31 passes for 215 yards and a touchdown without an interception and was sacked three times.
“We never gave up,” Worley said. “We were down 17-3 and it could have easily been 24 or 31 to 3. Then we capitalized on our defense’s momentum. We fought until the last play.
“I think you have to look at that as an outsider and say, ‘This team is doing something.’ ”
Almost six minutes later after Neal’s first score, the Vols’ defense accounted for points – something that is becoming old hat.
Special teams standout Jalen Reeves-Maybin, a freshman from Clarksville, broke through Georgia punt protection and blocked Colin Barber’s punt.
The ball rolled around on the near hash mark before Devaun Swafford, a true freshman walk-on player who was playing high school ball at Kingsport Dobyns-Bennett this time last year, scooped it up and scooted 15 yards for a touchdown to tie the game at 17-all with 1:25 left in the third quarter.
It was Swafford’s second defensive touchdown of the season and came on his 19th birthday.
“The special teams play changed the game,” said Vols linebacker A.J. Johnson, who had a team-high 12 tackles. “It energized the whole team and the stadium. It was great that we got a touchdown off of it.”
The large crowd regained some of its rowdiness and everyone in the building started thinking an upset was brewing on Rocky Top.
Maybe the new smokey gray uniform had succeeded in inspiring the Vols to end a string of futility against ranked teams and beat one for the first time since dumping South Carolina in 2010 – the Vols wore black jerseys with orange trim on that Halloween weekend.
For most of the game and surely the entire second half, the Vols were loaded for bear.
Already the Tennessee defense had dished out some punishing hits to Georgia’s offense. The Vols knocked running back Keith Marshall, split ends Michael Bennett and Justin Scott-Wesley out of the game with right knee injuries.
Additionally, on the blocked punt Barber was nailed by a vicious block just inside the end zone and suffered a concussion.
“It’s just a shame,” Richt said. “I just don’t know what the carnage is right now.”
With the score deadlocked Murray, who completed 19-for-35 for 196 yards and three touchdowns to become the SEC’s all-time leading passer with 11,625 yards, breaking the old mark of 11,528 ex-Bulldog Davie Greene, wasn’t ready to leave Knoxville without a fight.
Murray directed a quick four-play, 75-yard drive that was capped by freshman tailback Brendan Douglas’ 3-yard touchdown run five seconds into the fourth quarter, giving the Bulldogs a 24-17 advantage.
Murray had a career-long 57-yard quarterback draw to the Vols’ 3 to set up Douglas’ short plunge.
The Vols were still hanging around, though.
Tailback Rajion Neal, who rushed for 148 yards – the Vols had a total of 189 – on 28 carries, capped a nine-play, 75-yard drive with a 1-yard scoring burst to pull Tennessee level with Georgia at 24-24.
It took the Vols almost 10 minutes to get back on the scoreboard, but again it was Neal doing the honors from 7-yards out with 6:42 left in the game. That pushed Vols ahead, 31-24, with 1:54 on the stadium scoreboard clock.
On the drive, Jones went for first downs on two fourth-down gambles, converting both. Neal picked up the needed 1 yard on the first risky call from the Vols’ 29. From Georgia’s 35 and facing a fourth-and-1 again, Worley completed a 28-yard pass to tight end A.J. Branisel that moved the Vols to Georgia’s 7.
“You have to have confidence to make them work,” Worley said.
Said Jones, “We have the best offensive line in the SEC. That’s what we believe, so we’re going to do it. We executed (the plays) in practice and there was never any doubt that we were going to do that.”
Two plays later Neal scored.
Neal learned on Friday night backfield mate Marlin Lane would not play against Georgia, but still planned on splitting most of the carries with other backs.
“I had total confidence in Tom Smith, Alden Hill and Deanthonie Summerhill,” Neal said. “So I wasn’t positive that it was going to be all me.”
Neal, Howard and Worley were the only Vols to run the ball, and each had six carries.
After another kickoff by Palardy found the back of the end zone, Murray and the Bulldogs had 1 minute, 54 seconds to make something happen offensively. As it turned out Murray didn’t need all the allotted time.
Murray converted two third-down plays to keep the drive going, including a 32-yard pass to Douglas on a third-and-six from Tennessee’s 49.
From the Vols’ 10, Murray threw an incomplete pass, but Tennessee’s Corey Vereen was flagged for a personal foul, a half-the-distance penalty.
On the next play, Murray misfired to Wooten. The Vols’ Justin Coleman was hit with a pass interference call in the end zone, moving the Bulldogs to a first-and-goal from the 2.
“Penalties are always a game changer,” Coleman said, “but we had to snap it clear and play the next down.”
Murray threw back-to-back incompletions, but found Wooten just inside the end zone for the game-tying touchdown with five seconds left in regulation.
“(Murray) has done everything he could do at this point and I’m really proud of him,” Richt said. “He just played like a champion today.”
Tennessee, now 10-5 in overtime games, takes a week off before hosting South Carolina, the fourth of five nationally ranked teams on the schedule. The Vols travel to No. 1 Alabama on Oct. 26.
Georgia 10 0 0 14 – 34
Tennessee 0 3 14 14 – 31
UGA – FG Marshall Morgan 56, 12:12
UGA – Chris Conley 1 pass from Aaron Murray (Morgan kick), 3:53
TEN – FG Michael Palardy, 26, 10:15
UGA – Rantavious Wooten 4 pass from Murray (Morgan kick), 5:09
TEN – Marquez North 19 pass from Justin Worley (Palardy kick), 7:10
TEN – Devaun Swafford 15 blocked punt return (Palardy kick), 1:25
UGA – Brendan Douglas 3 run (Morgan kick), 14:55
TEN – Rajion Neal 1 run (Palardy kick), 11:15
TEN – Neal 7 run (Palardy kick), 1:54
UGA – Wooten 2 pass from Murray (Morgan kick), 0:05
UGA – FG Morgan 42
ATT – 102,455
First Downs 22 18
Rushes-Yards 37-238 41-189
Passing Yards 196 215
Total Yards 72-434 72-404
Com.-Att.-Int. 19-35-0 17-31-0
Fumbles-Lost 0-0 1-1
Punts.-Avg. 5-34.0 6-51.2
Penalties-Yds. 6-41 9-67
RUSHING — Georgia: J.J. Green 17-129, Aaron Murray 3-53, Keith Marshall 5-33, Brendan Douglas 10-25, Merritt Hall 1-minus 1, Team 1-minus 1; Tennessee: Rajion Neal 28-148, Alton Howard 6-46, Justin Worley 6-minus 4, Team 1-minus 1.
PASSING — Georgia: Murray 19-35-0-196; Tennessee: Worley 17-31-0-215.
RECEIVING — Georgia: Chris Conley 5-64, Rantavious Wooten 6-38, Douglas 1-32, Justin Scott-Wesley 2-22, Michael Bennett 1-14, Rhett McGowan 2-13, Reggie Davis 1-9, Green 1-4; Tennessee: Howard 4-70, Marquez North 1-47, A.J. Branisel 1-28, Jonathan Smith 1-26, Jason Croom 2-25.
TACKLES (UA-A) – Georgia: Ramik Wilson 8-7 15, Amarlo Herrera 3-8 11, Garrison Smith 4-4 8; Tennessee: A.J. Johnson 6-6 12, Brian Randolph 5-2 7, Dontavis Sapp 4-3 7.
(E-mail Larry Fleming at email@example.com)