Tennessee’s offense mustered too little too late after its defense allowed too much too long in a 51-44 loss at No. 5 Georgia on Saturday.
But there were signs of progress for the Vols – during the course of the game and since a 37-20 home loss to Florida on Sept. 15.
Quarterback Tyler Bray appeared emotionally invested in a way that wasn’t previously apparent. The Vols’ running game looked the best it has in some time against a team worth mentioning. And even a defense that’s given up a large number of Boys Club-looking, big-play touchdowns this season, produced four fourth-quarter punts to give Bray and company a chance against the Bulldogs, who appeared headed for a cakewalk after dashing to a 27-10 lead in the initial 18-plus minutes.
Tennessee scored 20 points in the final five minutes of the first half to go in tied 30-30, generating an anxious Sanford Stadium buzz from Georgia fans that could still be heard over the UT band at halftime.
The game had a whole lot of points and a little bit of everything. There was a blocked punt, a blocked PAT, missed PATs and a timeout burned over another PAT attempt because UT had nine players on the field when Georgia lined up for a two-point conversion. After the timeout, the Bulldogs converted it with a pass.
The statuesque Bray even executed an option play to his left with a pitch to Rajion Neal for a 9-yard gain on 2nd-and-8 with 7 1/2 minutes left in the game.
In the end, however, it was a wildly entertaining UT loss, and one that Bray felt responsible for after three fourth-quarter turnovers. One interception at the end was in desperation mode, but a fumble at the Georgia 31 was avoidable and an interception at midfield was a more glaring mistake. And both plays came on first down.
Still, as UT coach Derek Dooley mentioned, Bray hasn’t been in that comeback situation often, if ever, while dealing with a fast defense in a loud stadium. And perhaps it was the heat of the moment, but the pain on Bray’s face afterward appeared more reassuring for the Vols’ future than how much he hurt the Vols with those late mistakes.
Besides, if Cordarrelle Patterson holds on to what would have been a long TD reception in the second quarter and Derrick Brodus doesn’t hook a PAT and slice a 28-yard field goal, Bray might’ve been the winner in a matchup against fellow junior Aaron Murray anyway.
UT offensive coordinator Jim Chaney didn’t abandon the ground game after Georgia went up 43-30 with 6:32 left in the third quarter. Of course, Chaney was aided by Patterson’s decision not to the throw a flanker flea-flicker, and instead run back and forth across the field for a 46-yard TD that got the Vols within 43-37.
But Chaney stayed balanced after Georgia stretched it back to 51-37. Neal and Marlin Lane combined for eight carries on a 13-play, 60-yard drive that Neal capped with a 9-yard TD run with 8:56 remaining.
“Coach Chaney called a great game tonight,” Bray said. “He put us in a situation to win. We just didn’t do it.”
The Vols’ defense, as 560 yards will attest, was the key to the loss. The offseason hire of defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri couldn’t look shakier.
Tennessee allowed Georgia TD runs of 51, 72 and 75 yards. Akron had a 70-yard TD run. Florida had a 75- and 45-yard run and a 75-yard pass.
North Carolina State had a 49-yard pass. Even Georgia State (0-5), which lost 33-6 to South Carolina State and 35-3 to William & Mary, converted a 3rd-and-20 and 3rd-and-25 on its opening drive against the Vols.
“We give up a lot of big plays,” Dooley said.
You get the feeling 6-foot-7, 370-pound defensive tackle Daniel McCullers isn’t contributing to the problems on defense. He routinely moves centers and/or guards backward, and his agility is nearly as astounding as his size. McCullers played a lot of snaps on a muggy day against the Bulldogs, and they didn’t’ do a lot between the tackles, particularly late.
In fact, it’s hard to believe a lot of NFL scouts wouldn’t be more excited about him than fellow juniors Bray, Patterson or perhaps even Justin Hunter at this point.
Another bright spot on Saturday was freshman defensive back LaDarrell McNeil, a four-star prospect out of Dallas. The 6-foot-1, 195-pounder, who seemed to play more than Brent Brewer did late at Georgia, found the ball and even hit like the veteran Brewer.
“He flies around in practice, so you know, you kind of expect him to do it in the game,” senior linebacker Herman Lathers said. “I think he’s gonna be an All-American.”
And the disappointed Lathers wasn’t exactly in the mood to throw around praise, though he did see progress in the Vols in terms of perseverance and unity after an uninspired finish against Florida.
“We showed a lot of grit (against Georgia) – a team that worked hard during the offseason, the last nine months,” Lathers said. “(We’re) a team that’s as close as it’s ever been.”
However, the Vols are 0-2 in the SEC and Dooley’s now 0-12 against ranked opponents. He seemed to be showing the wear of that when he became sarcastic in response to a question about UT’s running game that was actually worded from a complimentary angle. Dooley, who has been critical of UT’s running game multiple times this season, even after the game against lowly Georgia State, suggested Saturday that only the media has been.
Dooley otherwise appeared somewhat upbeat, considering the circumstances. UT begins a three-game stretch against ranked opponents Oct. 13 at Mississippi State. A home game with top-ranked Alabama and a game at No. 6 South Carolina follow that one.
“We’re improving,” Dooley said, “and we’ll get over the hump.”