In many respects, the game came down to a couple plays from two running backs. Both are among the most powerful in the league. Both had an impressive day on Saturday afternoon. Both will key for their respective team going forward.
But with the game hanging in the balance in the fourth quarter, it was Todd Gurley who took over with some key plays – including a 51-yard touchdown run and a fourth-down conversion that sealed it up at the end. Jalen Hurd – Tennessee’s star-bound true freshman – lost the ball during a handoff exchange in the end zone that Georgia safety Josh Dawson hopped on for a touchdown.
“It was just a bad exchange,” Hurd said. “I completely take full responsibility and that’s something that won’t happen again.”
“This was very disappointing,” added Tennessee coach Butch Jones, referencing the entire game effort. “It’s about this football team understanding that it’s a game of inches. It’s a big play here, a play there and it’s cumulative factors. They really fought and every individual in this organization believed that we were going to win. I am proud of them, but we have to continue to learn from this and then move on.
“We are going to be a good football team and we are going to win a lot of football games.”
Of course it isn’t fair to pin the loss solely on the botched exchange between Justin Worley and Hurd. Tennessee would never have been that backed up if not for a perfect punt that Georgia downed on the 1.
And despite bottling Gurley up for much of the first half, the junior Heisman candidate couldn’t be denied in the second half – finishing the game with 208 yards and two touchdowns with an additional 30 yards of receiving.
“He’s a bigger guy,” said linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin. “He’s got good speed. He’s one of the top running backs in the country so we had to do a great job of getting him on the ground and we gave up a lot of points today, so we didn’t do a good enough job.”
The Vols jumped out to a 10-0 lead in the first quarter thanks to two impressive offensive drives that led to a 46-yard field goal by Aaron Medley and a 1-yard touchdown run by Hurd.
Georgia fought back with three unanswered touchdown drives to take a 21-10 lead in the second half. A nice punt return by explosive freshman Isaiah McKenzie set up a 3-yard touchdown keeper for quarterback Hutson Mason for the first score. Todd Gurley’s 1-yard plunge capped off an 87-yard drive that gave UGA the 14-10 lead. A 20-yard catch and run by running back Nick Chubb completed the trio of scores.
Then it was Tennessee’s turn to respond. After stalling on four straight drives where the Vols only accumulated 10 total yards, Justin Worley marched the ball 83 yards in under a minute – connecting with a revitalized Jason Croom for a 23-yard touchdown to cut it back to 21-17 at the half.
“To perform the one-minute drill on the road and you go the length of the field and score on them is really encouraging,” Jones said. “It gave us some momentum going into the half.”
The teams stalemated for the third quarter and into the early fourth. Eight combined punts and two turnovers kept the scoreboard blanked. The Vols lost Worley for a few possessions when he took a shot to his elbow, though the senior was able to return with a sleeve on it and Jones confirmed he won’t miss any time – saying that it was temporarily numbed, but not injured.
The Vols got the ball back on their own 1 with just under five minutes to play with a chance to tie with a field goal or take a late lead with a touchdown. That’s when Dawson jumped on the fumbled exchange.
But yet again, Tennessee, a 17-point road underdog playing with dozens of true freshmen, kept battling. Worley marched Tennessee down the field and connected with Pig Howard for a 31-yard touchdown pass to cut it to 35-32 after a 2-point conversion with 2:14 remaining.
Despite having three timeouts, the Vols opted to attempt the onside kick, which Georgia recovered.
“Yeah, we considered kicking it deep,” Jones said. “But the way they were running the football…there were a lot of scenarios playing in your mind. We thought as a coaching staff, let’s go win the football game right now and try to get the football back.”
The Bulldogs finished it off with a fourth-down conversion that Gurley got by about a yard – ending any possibility of some last-minute magic for the Vols.
It was another mixed-emotion type of loss for the Vols – in some ways similar to the 2013 loss to the Bulldogs in Knoxville. On one hand, the progress by the young Vols is obvious. They’re close. But how long is that okay? The frustrating losses have piled up over the past few years and players and fans are clearly ready for more breakthroughs than close calls.
“You get tired of being so close, knowing what you’re capable of,” said senior linebacker/defensive end Curt Maggitt.
“We didn’t win,” Jones said. “The expectation at the University of Tennessee is that we win.”
The Vols are getting closer and closer and very well may get that opportunity next Saturday against the Gators in Knoxville. All the focus will turn to Florida this week and breaking a nine-game losing streak to their SEC East rivals. Eventually the good efforts should turn into wins. Just not this Saturday afternoon in Athens.