Dawgs fans feel mixture of pain, pride after roller-coaster finale

Which is tougher to take, losing in humiliating fashion or having a major upset victory snatched away as time expires?

While Saturday’s loss to Tennessee definitely hurt more, many UGA fans take solace in the way Kirby Smart’s Dawgs took a surging Tennessee team down to the final play, resulting in a much more honorable defeat than the previous week’s dispiriting blowout by Ole Miss.

Not all fans, of course. Some would rather lose big than go through the kind of emotional whiplash caused by the final 10 seconds of the game against the Vols.

I see their point, and it was certainly one of the more excruciating Georgia losses I’ve seen, but I was proud of the Dawgs’ efforts against Tennessee, and I couldn’t say that the previous week against the Rebels. So, I’ll take a heartbreaking loss on the last play over a blowout, no matter how painful it is.

Against Ole Miss, Georgia not only looked outmanned, but unmotivated. In contrast, against the Vols the Dawgs were the aggressor and seemed like a team on a mission. It was still far from a perfect performance, and UGA quite obviously wasn’t the more talented team, but few observers not wearing orange came away from that game not thinking the Bulldogs deserved the hard-fought win they almost secured.

Sony Michel scores for the Dawgs against Tennessee. (John Kelley / UGA)

Finally finding a semblance of a running attack — despite Nick Chubb only participating in one play — Georgia managed to dominate time of possession by a wide margin thanks to the yeoman efforts of Sony Michel and Brian Herrien, and led on the scoreboard for most of the game.

Yes, the offensive line still had trouble getting much push in the ground game, pass protection was very spotty and there still were some dropped passes.

There also were some questionable play calls (most notably having a true freshman quarterback standing in his own end zone trying to find an open receiver).

And the defense remains suspect, frequently losing containment on Tennessee QB Joshua Dobbs, and missing quite a few tackles, including on that fateful final kickoff. Speaking of which, the coaches’ justifiable lack of confidence in the kicking game (which also resulted in having to go for it on fourth down when most teams would kick a field goal) was a major factor in how the game turned out.

But, while Jacob Eason still made mistakes and looked like the true freshman he is at times, he also showed why he was considered the top quarterback prospect coming out of high school nationally last year. He made a number of key connections with fellow freshman Isaac Nauta (who had 5 catches for 83 yards, including a beautiful 50-yard scoring pass on which the tight end outraced the Volunteer secondary).

Most impressive of all, though, was that final strong-armed 47-yard touchdown pass from Eason to Riley Ridley — a big-time play that sent the majority of the capacity Sanford Stadium crowd into a paroxysm of unexpected joy that would have lifted the roof if the place had one. The sustained roar following that score was at least as loud as the end of the 2013 LSU game, the benchmark for the loudest I’ve ever heard a UGA crowd in Athens.

Jacob Eason had some big-time throws against the Vols. (Brant Sanderlin / AJC)

As a Tennessee fan said in consoling me as I walked out of the stadium Saturday night, “That Eason kid is going to be a stud.”

Unfortunately, the Dawgs lost their poise momentarily, resulting in 20 yards in penalties, and it all went wrong despite the Eason-Ridley heroics, leaving Georgia fans looking like someone had just knocked the wind out of us.

Still, the Bulldogs not only were competitive in a game against a program that’s been building for three seasons toward what was widely predicted to be its year in the SEC East spotlight, Georgia also was one play away from being in the driver’s seat in the division despite being the less talented unit.

Smart and his staff still have a lot of work to do, and some of the problems likely won’t be solved completely this year, but they came out of the Tennessee game with quite a few positives to build on in the remaining games.

Sure, some of the negatives during the game were beyond the Dawgs’ control. The officiating, particularly a couple of decisions by replay official Al Ford (of the infamous Jasper Sanks “fumble” in the 1999 loss to Tech), was inconsistent at best and just flat-out wrong in the case of one Tennessee “touchdown.”

But what was most infuriating for Georgia fans in the end was this: When you take the lead with 10 seconds left on the clock, you should win the game!

However, as the tortured Georgia fan base has learned the hard way in recent years, no lead is safe as long as there’s a single second left on the clock.

The penalties on the touchdown play (celebration) and ensuing kickoff (offsides) were the killer, setting the Vols up for the 43-yard desperation pass that won the game.

But, frankly, the latter wasn’t just luck: Georgia’s defenders were badly positioned in the end zone, and the UGA coaches decided to drop eight men back into coverage and not put any serious pressure on Dobbs, allowing him to stand in the pocket and put the ball exactly where it needed to go. I don’t understand why they didn’t choose to put more pressure on Dobbs, knowing that the height advantage the Tennessee receivers had over Georgia’s defenders increased the odds of a successful Hail Mary.

But that’s just emblematic of the larger problem: The Dawgs and their coaches need to learn how to finish a win and dispel for good this hard-luck culture that grew up around the program in the final years of the Mark Richt era. Somehow, Georgia always seems to be the victim in the sort of miracle last-minute plays that ESPN loves to replay endlessly.

If Smart is going to lift this program above the not-quite-great level it’s occupied since its last SEC title, he’s going to have to change that narrative.

Go Dawgs!

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— Bill King, Junkyard Blawg

Bill King is an Athens native and a graduate of the University of Georgia’s Henry W. Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication. A lifelong Bulldogs fan, he sold programs at Sanford Stadium as a teen and has been a football season ticket holder since leaving school. He has worked at the AJC since college and spent 10 years as the Constitution’s rock music critic before moving into copy editing on the old afternoon Journal. In addition to blogging, he’s now a story editor.

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