ATHENS — In the days before No. 3 Georgia was set to host No. 1 Tennessee at Sanford Stadium, former Volunteers quarterback Erik Ainge tweeted that “playing between the hedges was overrated.” The tweet continued with the crowd was “not that loud.” It ended with the Vols “will be just fine in Athens!” (his exclamation point).
Turns out, as so many things are on social media, Ainge was wrong. Georgia made Tennessee look like its mid-state SEC brethren in a 27-13 victory Saturday.
A very motivated crowd, whose never-ending cheers at least three times surpassed a jet engine-like 127 decibels, pushed Georgia’s (9-0, 6-0 SEC) defense to dominate what was the best offense in the SEC and among the best in the nation. Tennessee (8-1, 4-1), which was averaging 553 yards per game, was held to 289. It finished with 36.4 less points than its season average of 49.4, which had led the nation. A team that had posted 54 plays of at least 20 yards finished with one.
“What an incredible environment,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said.
The crowd three times helped force pivotal false starts, including back-to-back calls in the second quarter when Tennessee was inside Georgia’s 10-yard line and had a chance to get within touchdown. It settled for a 36-yard field goal and never got closer than 15 points after that until the game was almost finished. Tennessee had seven false starts.
“I didn’t think all in all we handled the noise very well,” Tennessee coach Josh Heupel said. “That’s false starts. Getting the safety. Getting communication up front. At the end of the day, that hurt us at times throughout the course of tonight.”
No, the Vols weren’t fine.
“It got to a point where my body was shaking,” said Bulldogs safety Javon Bullard, who added that the players used hand signals to communicate with each other. “So it was a crazy feeling.”
It was assumed before the game that Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker, a Heisman Trophy contender, and the Vols’ fast-paced offense would outrun Georgia, which hadn’t faced an offense with as many weapons this season. The Bulldogs, which entered the game with an SEC-worst 10 sacks, didn’t figure to be able to get close enough to Hooker to affect his poise.
The Bulldogs sacked Hooker a season-high six times, including a pivotal hit by defensive tackle Jalen Carter in the end zone late in the first quarter that, to that point, was the loudest moment in the stadium. Hooker fumbled. The ball was recovered by right guard Javontez Spraggins, who somehow carried three Bulldogs out of the end zone and advanced to the half-yard line to give Tennessee a bit of space for a punt. After a hurried, short punt to its 37-yard line, Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett hit Ladd McConkey for a 37-yard touchdown on the next play to give the Bulldogs a 14-3 lead with 3:32 remaining in the first quarter.
“I don’t know if our stadium is exactly built vertically for this crazy crowd, but they were impactful,” Smart said of the crowd.
Carter’s sack was the second time to that point that the Bulldogs got pressure on Hooker. The first time forced an overthrow to Jalin Hyatt on third-and-6 from Tennessee’s 41-yard line on its second possession.
“Being able to rush the QB and get some sacks on them and get some good pressure on him was a big challenge for us,” defensive tackle Nazir Stackhouse said. “And I’m glad we went out there and executed.”
The Bulldogs did this without starting outside linebacker Nolan Smith, who suffered a torn pectoral muscle against Florida. His backup, Robert Beal, left the game in the third quarter with an undisclosed injury.
The domination was game-long.
The Vols posted only 64 yards in the first quarter, 75 in the second and 48 in the third, by which time it trailed 27-6. The Vols’ 13 points was their fewest under Heupel. The receiving duo of Hyatt and Bru McCoy, who had combined for 75 receptions, 1,358 yards (169.8 per game) and 16 touchdowns, finished with 101 yards and no touchdowns. A team that averaged 7.4 yards per play finished with an average of 3.9 on Saturday in Sanford Stadium, whose patrons’ barks were as bad as the defense’s bite.
Georgia 27, Tennessee 13
Linebacker Smael Mondon said the basics of the game plan were to rush as a unit so that Hooker couldn’t break containment. He finished with 195 passing yards, almost 100 less than his season average, and 17 rushing yards, 25 less than his season average. Bullard said that because the defense faces some of the best players every day in practice, it made playing against the Vols that much easier. Smart said many on the defense did double reps to prepare for Tennessee’s tempo.
The Georgia players made available for postgame interviews said they hadn’t read Ainge’s tweet, but Stackhouse said he was aware that something was said.
“Whoever actually didn’t play in Sanford will say that; I’m not saying he didn’t, he probably did,” Stackhouse said. “But you know, Kirby said in the middle of the week we need y’all to come out here with a lot of energy, being loud. And you know, that only boosted our fans up, and it was able to help us with the win as well, too.”
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