The Vols were almost up, down, way down, tied, ahead, back down, up and then finally found a way to get it done on Saturday.
A game that had enough drama for almost an entire season culminated in a redemptive outcome for a Tennessee team that finally found a way to get over the hump in a 38-31 win over Georgia that marked its first win over a ranked team since 2013 and its first win over Georgia (4-2, 2-2 SEC) since 2009.
And for all the damning statistics that have been thrown around against Tennessee this season in the midst of a run of historic collapses, here’s one Tennessee fans can finally smile about: Georgia had been 55-0 over the past 12 years when holding a 21-point lead before blowing a 24-3 lead over UT (3-3, 1-2 SEC) on Saturday. It was also Tennessee’s second-largest home come-from-behind victory ever, only behind a 25-point comeback against Vanderbilt in 1987.
It wasn’t pretty. It was far from perfect. But for a season marked with frustration and failure on a grand scale, the Vols finally found a way to flip the script and get a big win with the odds stacked up against them.
“Very, very gutty performance,” Butch Jones said after the game. “We made plays when we had to. I thought our receivers stepped up, made some big plays. We were able to catch and advance. We talked about playing complementary football in all three phases. We gave them 14 points in the first half, but then you go on and you outscore a good football team 35 to 7. It speaks volumes.”
It was loud and clear for a fan base that has endured a bizarre combination of player and coach errors as the Vols stumbled to a 2-3 start to the season.
Tennessee found itself in a 24-3 hole in the second quarter and arguably in the nadir of the program in at least the past few years. A week that saw speculation about an alleged altercation on the practice field earlier this week, the dismissal of senior wide receiver Pig Howard and plenty of questions about Butch Jones’ future and where the program would be if the Vols fell to 2-4 with a trip to Alabama looming in two weeks, ended with one of the more relieving wins for this program in years.
In the words of Jones, the Vols didn’t flinch despite facing the 21-point deficit in the second quarter. As they have done several other times this season, the special teams gave Tennessee a lift. Evan Berry gave the Vols good field position near midfield following the UGA score that put the Bulldogs up 24-3. It took just 2:21, but two fourth-down conversions, to move the ball 53 yards for a score. Josh Smith made an impressive fourth-down snag on a pass thrown a bit behind him before sprinting down the middle of the field to the end zone to make it 24-10.
Then special teams struck again. Jakob Johnson forced a fumble on the ensuing kickoff that John Kelly jumped on. This time it took just five plays and 28 seconds to make it 24-17 at the half.
“Business as usual – snap and clear, and move on,” Jones said of UT’s mindset when down 21.”That’s what we talked about. We talked about it being a fourth quarter game and we joked, 16 overtimes if it took that many. That was kind of the mindset.”
“No, we don’t get down,” linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin added. “It’s not really in our DNA. Like the maxim says, if at first the game or the breaks go against you don’t let up – put on more steam. That was the case tonight. The breaks didn’t go our way at first. We didn’t let up. We had a great special teams play – you know the kickoff team generated a fumble for us, gathered it back to the offense. They punched it in and it just led into that second half and gave us a lot of momentum going into it.”
A pair of third-quarter scores involving quarterback Joshua Dobbs, who finished 25-of-42 for 312 yards, three TDs and one INT and added 118 yards on the ground, put the Vols on top. Georgia countered, tying it up on the first play of the fourth quarter. And while the fourth-quarter meltdown jokes made a brief return, Tennessee, again, responded. This time it was a statement drive – an 8-play, 78-yard masterpiece that put the Vols up 38-31.
It wasn’t easy to hold on after that. It seemingly never is for Tennessee.
The Vols missed a few opportunities to end the game early, letting Georgia advance within scoring range as the final seconds ticked down before the final pass of the game was ultimately batted away. There was a costly, unexplainable drop by Georgia receiver Reggie Davis on the prior fourth-quarter drive as well that wiped a likely touchdown off the board. The Bulldogs also played virtually the entire game without star running Nick Chubb, who was injured on a gruesome-looking incident on the first play from scrimmage.
Tennessee certainly got some breaks, but if there’s any program in the nation that is due for a few, perhaps it is Tennessee. But make no mistake, this wasn’t a fluky or lucky night for the Vols.
No team had come back against UGA in over a decade when down 21 points. This team that seemingly knew nothing but how to blow leads found a way to flip the script for one night.