ATHENS – Kirby Smart gets credit for recruiting great defensive players to Georgia, and those players get credit for bailing out their masochistic coach as the No. 3 Bulldogs needed another second-half surge Saturday to smother No. 14 Tennessee 44-21 at Sanford Stadium.

The defense-fueled, come-from-behind victory was Georgia’s fourth in a row over the Volunteers and sets up another monumental matchup with Alabama. The No. 3 Bulldogs (3-0) will take on the No. 2 Crimson Tide next Saturday in Tuscaloosa. Bama defeated Ole Miss 63-48 in a game in which the teams combined for nearly 1,400 yards.

Georgia trailed 21-17 at the half in large part because Smart wouldn’t accept that kicking on fourth-and-short is wise when your roster includes a world-class defense. Smart chose to go for it on fourth and inches at the Tennessee goal line trailing by four with one second remaining. The Bulldogs and running back Zamir White were stuffed.

Earlier, Smart chose to go for it on a fourth-and-1 at the Bulldogs' own 36 in the second quarter. Quarterback Stetson Bennett was stopped for no gain then, too. Tennessee scored on a 36-yard touchdown pass the next play.

Smart said “analytics would have slaughtered me” had he not gone for it at the end of the half. As for the other time, he said, “I know my dad will be mad at me about that. ‘Punt the ball and go play defense.’”

Didn’t matter. Georgia’s defense was more than happy to handle things from there.

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On the Volunteers' opening possession of the third quarter, Azeez Ojulari recorded the coveted trifecta of outside linebackers. That is, he got a sack, forced a fumble and recovered it. Thirty-seven seconds into the half, Georgia was in business at the Vols 15.

The Bulldogs were lucky to come away with three points. Chop-block and offensive pass-interference calls against Georgia quickly pushed them back to the 30. But the Bulldogs were able to get half of it back and settled for a 34-yard field goal by Jack Podlesny to get within 21-20.

Georgia’s defense came through again on Tennessee’s next possession. Defensive back Tyrique Stevenson blitzed from the left and forced Guarantano to throw quickly to the right. Cornerback Eric Stokes was over there, and stepped in front of the intended receiver for an interception.

Again, Georgia’s offense couldn’t do much with the good break. But the walk-on Podlesny came through again, this time with a career long 51-yard field goal. In fewer than five minutes of play, the Bulldogs had the lead back, 23-21.

Turned out the defensive havoc was just getting cranked up. Adam Anderson would execute a strip sack later in the third quarter. Georgia didn’t recover this time, but it set up the Bulldogs' first scoring drive of the second half.

They needed two third-down conversions to complete the eight-play, 62-yard drive. The second one was another Stetson Bennett-to-Kearis Jackson connection over the middle. The PAT pushed Georgia ahead 30-21. It was Jackson’s first career touchdown. He finished with 4 catches for 91 yards.

“First off, we beat a very good team in Tennessee,” Bennett said after his second start as Georgia’s quarterback. "But there’s no telling what we could do if we just clean up the little things.”

Another three-and-out for Georgia’s defense set up the Bulldogs at their own 36. Again, they’d score on third down, this one a short pass from Bennett to freshman defensive tackle Jalen Carter, playing tight end in Georgia’s “jumbo package.”

caption arrowCaption
Georgia linebacker Monty Rice (32) runs for a TD as Tennessee wide receiver Brandon Johnson (7) watches after Rice recovered a fumble which he caused during the second half. JOHN AMIS FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL- CONSTITUTION

Credit: John Amis

Georgia linebacker Monty Rice (32) runs for a TD as Tennessee wide receiver Brandon Johnson (7) watches after Rice recovered a fumble which he caused during the second half. JOHN AMIS FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL- CONSTITUTION

Credit: John Amis

caption arrowCaption
Georgia linebacker Monty Rice (32) runs for a TD as Tennessee wide receiver Brandon Johnson (7) watches after Rice recovered a fumble which he caused during the second half. JOHN AMIS FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL- CONSTITUTION

Credit: John Amis

Credit: John Amis

The highlight of the night was probably on Tennessee’s next series. On third down, it was inside linebacker and defensive captain Monty Rice who had a sack and strip of Guarantano. And this time the senior Rice scooped up the loose ball and returned it 20 yards for the score.

Guarantano will be having nightmares about Georgia’s defense. He was sacked five times, fumbled three times, threw and interception and was pressured countless other times.

“We feed off of each other’s energy, definitely,” said linebacker Azeez Ojulari, who also had a strip sack and fumble recover. “Once anyone makes a big play it boosts the other teammates and all of our plays. It gets everyone going. Everyone is hype and ready to go out there and execute."

Tennessee managed just 214 yards offense and was 4-for-17 on third-down conversions.

The Bulldogs' offense finally got going in the second half as well. Bennett added another positive chapter to his fascinating storybook season. The former walk-on passed for 238 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 22 yards and another score as Georgia piled up 438 hard-earned yard