Georgia Bulldogs running back Todd Gurley tries to elude the tackle of Tennessee Volunteers linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin during the second quarter at Sanford Stadium Saturday September 27, 2014. BRANT SANDERLIN / BSANDERLIN@AJC.COM

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Georgia Bulldogs running back Todd Gurley tries to elude the tackle of Tennessee Volunteers linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin during the second quarter at Sanford Stadium Saturday September 27, 2014. BRANT SANDERLIN / BSANDERLIN@AJC.COM

For the first time in a while, Georgia’s defense can take credit for a victory.

The Bulldogs’ offense — and Todd Gurley in particular — had a big day was well. But it was Georgia’s defense that made the play assured a harder-than-expected game against a young, scrappy Tennessee team ended as a 35-32 win.

Josh Dawson, just inserted into the game at right defensive end, gathered in a fumble by Tennessee’s Jalen Hurd in the end zone for a sudden and badly needed Georgia touchdown. It gave the Bulldogs a 35-25 lead in what had been a three-point game.

Collin Barber’s punt — saved from the end zone by Damian Swann and downed at the 1 by Kosta Vavlas — put Georgia in position to make the play.

The importance of that play was immediately validated when Tennessee roared back down the field for another score. A 6-yard touchdown pass from Justin Worley to Marquez North and a two-point conversion brought the Volunteers to within three points with 2:14 to play.

But the Bulldogs recovered Tennessee’s onside-kick attempt on the subsequent kickoff, and Georgia was able to salt away the game on offense.

However, the outcome wasn’t assured until Vols coach Butch Jones decided to decline a holding penalty on Georgia with 52 seconds remaining. That left the Bulldogs with fourth-and-3 at the Tennessee 26. Gurley took a toss sweep left around left earn and got 4 yards and a Georgia first down. The Vols were unable to get the ball back.

Those last four yards gave Gurley a career-best 208 yards on 28 carries. The junior Heisman Trophy candidate also had 30 yards receiving, scored on a 51-yard run in the fourth quarter and produced a “SportsCenter” highlight by hurdling a defender in full stride on another play.

The victory gave Georgia its fifth consecutive win over Tennessee for first time since 1924, when the teams didn’t play annually. The No. 12-ranked Bulldogs improved to 3-1 overall and evened their SEC record at 1-1. Vanderbilt visits Sanford Stadium next Saturday.

Once again, Gurley had a curious dearth of carries and overall touches in the fourth quarter. But that changed when Georgia took over at its own 23 with 11:07 remaining in the fourth quarter. Hanging onto a three-point lead, the Bulldogs made sure to get him the ball on this possession. Gurley carried the ball on four of the Bulldogs’ five plays and ripped off a 51-yard touchdown run off left guard for a 28-17 lead with 9:31 to play.

But Gurley was called for unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty with a spike in the end zone at the end of the run, and Georgia had to kick off from its 20. Tennessee brought the ball back to the 48 and scored in four plays to make it clear it wasn’t going away.

Georgia got to midfield on the ensuing possession but stalled. That’s when Barber boomed the punt that was downed at the Tennessee 1 and set up the clinching play for Georgia’s defense.

The Bulldogs appeared in firm control of the game after Nick Chubb’s 20-yard touchdown reception gave them a 21-10 with 1:17 remaining in the first half. But it turned out that was more than enough time for the Vols to drive the field for another score.

Tennessee used draws, screen passes and one timeout to quickly fly down the field. On first down at the Georgia 23, Jason Croom of Norcross drew single coverage against cornerback Aaron Davis and beat him to the left corner of the end zone for a touchdown. Eighteen seconds still remained in the half as the Tennessee drew closer, at 21-17.

Georgia has scored 21 consecutive points previous to that. The other two scores came runs as Gurley dove over the pile Herschel Walker-style to give the Bulldogs their first lead of the game, 14-10, with 8:45 remaining in the half.

Georgia’s defense quickly found itself on its heels. The Vols received the opening kickoff and scored on their first two possessions to build a 10-0 lead.

On the first drive they failed to convert on a third-and-8 and had to settle for a 45-yard field goal. On the second, they twice converted on third down, including on a third-and-goal from the 1 when Jalen Hurd plowed in for the first touchdown.

Georgia had to punt again, but this time got some defensive resistance. A tackle-for-loss by Jordan Jenkins was followed by a sack by cornerback Damian Swann, and the Vols could not convert on third-and-22 from their own 8 and had to punt.

Freshman Isaiah McKenzie, aka the “human joystick,” returned the ensuing punt 29 yards to the Tennessee 32. The Bulldogs scored four plays later on a beautifullyexecuted, zone-read keeper by Mason four yards around left end. Georgia was within three.