The Tennessee Volunteers came into Saturday’s game with a chip on their shoulder. All week they had to bear the burden of the lingering streak hanging above their program’s history.
Since 2009 Tennessee had yet to beat a ranked opponent, and not since 2006 had they beat a top 10 opponent. They had a clear shot of ending both streaks Saturday night, but would come up inches short (literally) of victory against the No. 6 Bulldogs.
After an ill-timed fumble just inches shy of the goal line by Volunteers wide receiver Pig Howard in overtime, Tennessee (3-3) fell to the Georgia Bulldogs (4-1) 34-31 in Saturday afternoon in Neyland Stadium.
Excitement filled the area the entire week once it was announced Tennessee would debut their new “Smokey Gray,” uniforms for the first time ever against Georgia. The Bulldogs had a little pep in their step en route to Knoxville, Tenn. as well coming off of their victory over then No. 6 LSU the week prior.
Georgia continued the momentum from last week by jumping out to a 17-3 lead going into halftime, but did so without Todd Gurley who was hurt last week, and without Keith Marshall who went down with a knee injury in the first quarter. He would not return to the game and there is no time table for his return at this moment.
Marshall wouldn’t be the only significant loss the Bulldogs would suffer Saturday. They would also lose receivers Justin Scott-Wesley, and Michael Bennett in the second half. They too suffered knee injuries and never returned to the game.
Tennessee used Georgia’s misfortunes to their advantage. Although he still set the SEC record for passing yards, Aaron Murray had a less than Murray type of game. While the Tennessee defense fought to keep him honest, it could largely be contributed to their lack of depth after the significant injuries sustained by the Bulldogs offense.
After a 19 yard strike delivered by Justin Worley to true-freshman wide receiver Marquez North for his first career touchdown, the Vols found themselves just seven points back halfway through the third quarter. As the Tennessee defense continued to stand strong it was the special teams that may have made the most pivotal play in the game when Jalen Reeves-Maybin blocked a Georgia punt that was picked up by another true-freshman Devaun Swafford and run in for the tying score.
In the fourth quarter both teams traded scores to keep the game tied at 24, but a defensive stand at midfield with eight minutes remaining gave the Vols the chance they needed. Two fourth down conversions later Tennessee found themselves in the lead for the first time all game with 1:54 remaining.
With only one timeout left Murray was faced with a situation that has become all too familiar for him. Get the ball down the field and score. Leaving only five seconds on the clock he led his team down the field to tie the game and send it into overtime when he connected with Rantavious Wooten from just two yards out.
Tennessee received the ball first in overtime and after what seemed to be a go ahead touchdown for Pig Howard who finished with six rushes for 46 yards, and four receptions for 70 yards, was later ruled a touchback as he fumbled the ball just short of the goal line. Georgia then left it in their kicker’s hands and Marshall Morgan delivered from 42 yards out, helping the Bulldogs survive and keep their national championship hopes alive.
For the Vols it was a heartbreaking loss, but a confidence builder as well. Worley, who has struggled throughout the season, had an inspiring second half to keep the Vols within reach of the Bulldogs before finally taking the lead. He finished with 17-of-31 completions for 215 yards, a touchdown and the most important statistic, zero interceptions.
Tennessee’s offense as a whole finished with 404 yards total, including 148 yards and two touchdowns contributed by senior running back Raijon Neal who received the bulk of the carries while junior running back Marlin Lane was out for today’s matchup.
For the Vols this week will provide a much needed rest for them as they head towards their first bye week of the season. They will return to action on October 19th when the welcome the South Carolina Gamecocks to Neyland Stadium. Kickoff time has yet to be set for their matchup.