KNOXVILLE – Tennessee couldn’t add insult to injury Saturday against No. 6 Georgia, but the Volunteers are to be commended for their attempt.
Neyland Stadium had a pulse, and Tennessee’s heartbreaking loss to the Bulldogs had many Volunteers fans prouder than they’ve been in years to bleed orange.
First-year coach Butch Jones’ Volunteers let an upset of Georgia slip out of their hands, but the opportunity was only there because they’d held it together.
Tennessee turned a 14-point second-half deficit in to a 31-24 lead when workhorse senior Rajion Neal scored from seven yards out with 1:54 remaining, and the Vols appeared to have answered the Bulldogs’ last-second overtime-forcing TD on the initial possession of OT.
But UT receiver Alton “Pig” Howard, who had played well while helping give Tennessee (0-2, 3-3) a chance, lost the football at the 1-yard line while diving for the pylon to complete what would’ve been a 7-yard TD on second-and-goal. The ball bounced out of the end zone for a touchback, giving Georgia (3-0, 4-1) possession.
Three plays later, Marshall Morgan kicked a 42-yard field goal to conclude an instant classic that let the injury-plagued Bulldogs’ SEC title hopes live to limp another day.
A telling sign that Jones is building a family as much as a program was the compassion there was for Howard immediately after the stunning turn of events. Howard had played effectively, catching four passes for 70 yards and rushing six times for 46 yards, before the play that, unfortunately, he’ll take to his grave.
“I told him, ‘Don’t get down on yourself and keep fighting,’” UT linebacker Dontavis Sapp said. “And I told him I needed him for the rest of the season. … He played a great game, made plays when we needed it. Unfortunately, he had that play at the end. …
“Pig’s a great guy. He works his butt off. So I think he’ll be okay.”
Black-and-blue Georgia was ripe after outlasting LSU, 44-41, last week. The Bulldogs were without talented running back Todd Gurley, and lost fellow sophomore dynamo Keith Marshall to a right knee injury in the first quarter. It also lost receivers Michael Bennett and Justin Scott-Wesley during the game.
Jones could smell the upset, and he pulled out all stops. The Vols were 3-for-3 on fourth-down conversions. They went for a fourth-and-one from their 34-yard line while trailing 24-17 with 14 minutes remaining. Neal, who rushed for 148 yards and two TDs on 28 carries, dashed 43 yards on that one.
And on Tennessee’s ensuing drive, Jones went for a fourth-and-one from the UT 29 – with the scored tied and some seven minutes remaining.
“It definitely gave us some momentum in the second half,” UT quarterback Justin Worley said. “And you have to respect coach Jones for making those decisions. … We respected him for throwing the cards on the table and taking those chances.”
Another sign of coaching: UT’s Jalen Reeves-Maybin blocked a punt that fellow true freshman Devaun Swafford returned 15 yards for a TD to tie the score at 17 with 1:25 left in the third quarter. It was the second score of the season for Swafford, a Dobyns-Bennett alumnus.
Senior quarterback Aaron Murray, seemingly the Georgia offense’s last man standing, was the difference. He had a 57-yard run to set up the TD that answered Swafford’s score, and drove the ‘Dogs 75 yards in 10 plays and 109 seconds to force overtime on a 2-yard TD pass to Rantavious Wooten with five seconds left in regulation.
Murray also became the SEC’s all-time passing yardage leader on Saturday.
His counterpart appeared to make huge strides after throwing three interceptions in last week’s close call against South Alabama. Worley was 17-of-31 passing for 215 yards, a TD and no interceptions.
He might’ve looked his best when he stepped up into the pocket with ends crashing behind him and connected with true freshman Josh Smith for a 26-yard third-and-10 completion with 5:20 remaining and the score tied.
“I thought Justin probably played his best game,” Jones said. “He was poised. He made the plays.”
Jones and Worley also credited Neal, the offensive line and the collective resolve they personified.
“We never gave up,” Worley said. “We were down 17-3 and … it could’ve been 24- or 31-3 just like that. They’ve got a really good offense and our defense stepped up and had some key stops and we capitalized on our defensive momentum that they were giving us. … We fought until the very last play. …
“I think you have to look at that as an outsider and say, ‘This team’s doing something.’”
A week after leaving in droves with an outcome against South Alabama in doubt, UT’s fans were loud and proud while barking against UGa.
“They gave their all to Tennessee today,” UT defensive end Corey Miller said. “I give credit to all the Vol Nation, because the energy that they showed is more energy than I’ve seen since I’ve actually been here at the University of Tennessee. It excited me and it definitely kept me going throughout the entire game.”
Indeed, the scoreboard wasn’t the only means of measuring triumph on Saturday. Miller also clearly ached for Howard.
“I do know that he gave everything he had trying to make a play there,” Miller said, “and I respect him for that.”