With its workman-like 38-10 football victory over Tennessee on Saturday, Georgia slapped a Bulldog bookend on the Vols’ 14-game home winning streak.
The hosts hadn’t trudged back to their Neyland Stadium locker room so bowed and chastened since their opponent’s last visit two seasons ago, when Georgia’s 41-17 victory foreshadowed the first of its consecutive national championships and marked the existing gap between the two programs. A less obvious historical marker connected Saturday’s loss with last week’s 38-7 beatdown at Missouri in noting UT hadn’t lost consecutive games by 28-or-more points since 2019. That fact crawled across the bottom of the television screen on ESPN throughout Saturday night as part of the network’s account of the game.
Linking today’s program under Coach Josh Heupel with the mess made by former coach Jeremy Pruitt – no matter how seemingly incongruous – remains relevant to the challenge of achieving a stability that will sustain the pursuit of greater success.
When asked about Saturday’s game in relation to Georgia’s last visit, Heupel said: “We’ve still got to continue to take steps, what we’re doing as a program. It’s our personnel, the depth of our program. All of those things to continue to climb the race inside of this league. (Georgia’s) a really good football team. What they’ve done over the last couple of years is special, and we’ve got a ways to go."
Last season’s 11 victories spurred hopes and expectations. They also obscured the ongoing need to replenish the mass exodus of players after Pruitt was fired in January of 2021. The roster was still too depleted of talent and experience to absorb the loss of such players as quarterback Hendon Hooker, offensive tackle Darnell Wright and wide receiver Jalin Hyatt, who all moved on to the NFL after last season.
Quarterback Joe Milton III has been a stand-up guy as Hooker’s replacement. But he hasn’t stood out enough at this all-important position. After some recent improvement, he looked more like the Texas A&M version on Saturday, throwing for just 147 yards.
Along with the natural attrition, the Vols (7-4, 3-4 SEC) can’t cover for the injuries that thinned their ranks on Saturday. They played the Bulldogs without an offensive tackle and a guard and lost two more linemen during the game. During his Vol Network postgame interview, Heupel referenced the hunt for healthy linemen for Saturday’s regular season finale against Vanderbilt as if it might resemble fishing between the couch cushions for coins.
On the perimeter, transfer Dont’e Thornton Jr., who had emerged during the second half of the season as a receiving threat, suffered a season-ending ankle injury while making a spectacular touchdown catch against Missouri. Starter Bru McCoy was lost for the season in October due to injury.
On defense, Tennessee was missing Arion Carter and Keenan Pili at linebacker on Saturday and Wesley Walker at safety. Fellow safety Jourdan Thomas left with a hip injury early in the game. In the first quarter, walk-on Will Brooks was manning a safety position. He and the rest of secondary got scorched by Dillon Bell’s TD pass out of the backfield to Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint, which eclipsed Jalen Wright’s 75-yard scoring gallop on the first play from scrimmage and gave Georgia the lead for good before the quarter ended.
Heupel was pitiless during his Vol Network interview in saying, “The game doesn’t care who’s healthy, or who’s not. We’ve got to have the next guy step up.”
The coach was realistic, though, in doing the math during his media session regarding that next guy.
“We started year one, we were way down in the number of scholarships,” he said. “We have gotten closer to 85. You’re trying to develop guys from within. I think that’s important. (Georgia has) done that. They’ve added through the portal, too, but a lot of it’s been kids inside the program. We have to continue to develop and recruit.”
In the meantime, with a final home game remaining, wide receiver Squirrel White went back in time past Georgia’s previous visit and past 2019 in search of motivation. White retreated all the way to his childhood in advising his teammates to “play ball like it’s the backyard.”
Linebacker Aaron Beasley, a senior who elected to return this season, was right there with White.
“I think it goes back to your love for the game,” Beasley said. “This game will never go your way all the time, bro, and so when it doesn’t your love for the game should overpower how you feel.”
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Dan Fleser is a 1980 graduate of the University of Missouri, who has covered University of Tennessee athletics since 1988. He is a 2022 inductee to the Tennessee Sportswriters Hall of Fame. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.