It was harder than anybody expected it to be, but the No. 3-ranked Georgia Bulldogs surged late to remain undefeated — for the season and for the past 15 games against the SEC East — with a 43-14 win over Tennessee on Saturday night at Neyland Stadium.
The Bulldogs trailed 14-10 at one point in the first half and gave up 239 yards overall. But they answered with 354 first-half yards of their own and scored twice in the final two minutes to take control of the game at 26-14.
Georgia got the ball to start the second half, and while all it mustered in the third quarter was Rodrigo Blankenship’s third field goal of the night, the 29:32 to 15:28 time-of-possession disparity had taken its toll on the Volunteers.
By the time Brian Herrien scored on a 1-yard plunge to cap a 10-play drive with 8:02 to play in the game, Tennessee was completely gassed. Georgia made it a blowout when cornerback Eric Stokes’ quarterback sack set up a 60-yard, scoop-and-score touchdown by linebacker Tae Crowder with 4:39 remaining. Another huge contingent of UGA fans was there to witness it.
“I thought our kids played really hard tonight,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. “We didn't start the way we wanted tonight, especially not defensively. But offensively, I thought Jake (Fromm) did a really nice job and (James) Coley called a really nice game and changed some things up.”
With the victory, the Bulldogs improved to 5-0, 2-0 in the SEC, both against East Division teams. They haven’t lost to an Eastern Division foe since losing to Florida 24-10 in October 2016. Georgia plays host to South Carolina at noon Saturday at Sanford Stadium.
Tennessee (1-4, 0-2 SEC), in its second season under former Georgia defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, is off to its worst start since 1988.
Fromm played one of his best games as a Bulldog. The junior from Warner Robins passed for 288 yards, the fourth-best total of his career. He completed 24 of 29 passes and his balls were caught by nine different receivers. Fromm's favorite targets were Lawrence Cager (5 catches, 58 yards) and D’Andre Swift (4-72). The Bulldogs rolled up 526 yards of offense.
“Whoever's number was called tonight, they made plays,” Fromm said. “It's pretty easy when guys are getting open like that.”
Georgia’s depth started paying dividends in the first half as the Bulldogs came from behind to take a 26-14 lead into the locker room. Georgia scored 16 unanswered points after falling behind 14-10.
The last two touchdown drives came in the final 1:59 of the half with Fromm flourishing in the two-minute offense. Touchdown passes of three yards to Cager and seven to freshman George Pickens capped scoring drives that took 2:03 and 50 seconds.
“Coach Smart said that may happen,” Cager said of Georgia falling behind. “We knew Tennessee was a great team, even though their record might not reflect it. He asked us, if the game goes that way, how are you going to respond? I think the team as a whole did a great job of responding today.”
In between came a scoring chance by the Vols, however. But kicker Brent Cimaglia missed his first field-goal attempt of the season, this one from 49 yards away.
The issue for Georgia was on defense, where it gave up a season-high 239 yards in the first half. All of it came under the direction of Tennessee freshman Brent Maurer, who got his first career start at quarterback over fourth-year junior Jarrett Guarantano. The Vols doubled down on the risky move by choosing the ball first after winning the opening coin toss.
It looked like reckless strategy when the Vols had to punt after four plays. Then Georgia drove 84 yards in 12 plays for the first score of the game on a 1-yard run by Swift at the 7:07 mark.
But then Tennessee showed why Maurer was starting. On second-and-8, he hit a wide-open Marquez Callaway for a 73-yard touchdown. Cornerback D.J. Daniel bit on a double move, and safety Richard LeCounte was late in coming over from midfield on what would be the Vols’ longest scoring play since 2015.
That was the first of two 75-yard scoring drives directed by the freshman and sandwiched around a 50-yard field goal by Blankenship. Tennessee’s second scoring drive took 10 plays and was helped by a late-hit call on Georgia’s David Marshall. Jauan Jennings’s caught a 12-yard pass that made the score 14-10.
Georgia adjusted at halftime and Tennessee would gain just 104 yards after that. Seventy of those yards came on the Vols' final drive of the night against the Bulldogs' reserves. It ended on downs at the Georgia 5.