Georgia cruises past Tennessee in SEC home opener

In a game only slightly closer than the oddsmakers had predicted, Georgia handily defeated Tennessee on Saturday in Sanford Stadium. 

The No. 2-ranked Bulldogs led 24-0 early in the third quarter, then had the lead cut in half, but finished strong to defeat the Volunteers 38-12. 

Georgia entered the game as a 31-point favorite. 

After Tennessee trimmed the Bulldogs’ lead to 24-12 with just over 11 minutes to play, Georgia sealed the win with a powerful 13-play, 75-yard drive that consumed seven minutes and 39 seconds of clock. The Bulldogs ran the ball for all but one play of the drive, which tailback D’Andre Swift completed with a 14-yard touchdown run to restore the Bulldogs’ lead to 31-12. 

Tennesssee then fumbled on the first play of its next possession, recovered by Georgia’s Juwan Taylor at the Vols’ 31-yard line, and the Bulldogs quickly tacked on another touchdown on back-to-back runs of 16 and 15 yards by tailback Elijah Holyfield and freshman quarterback Justin Fields. 

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The win, coming in Georgia’s first home game of the season against an SEC opponent, improved the Bulldogs’ record to 5-0 (3-0 SEC). The win also evened the all-time series between Georgia and Tennessee at 23-23-2. 

Georgia finished with 441 yards of offense and held Tennessee to 209. The Vols had only 66 yards rushing on 25 attempts.

Georgia starting quarterback Jake Fromm completed 16 of 22 passes for 185 yards and no touchdowns. Fields, who was incorporated more into the offense than in previous games, ran for two touchdowns. He had 45 yards rushing on five carries and completed one of two passes for five yards.

On their long drive in the fourth quarter, the Bulldogs went back and forth, back and forth, on quarterbacks -- from Fromm to Fields to Fromm to Fields to Fromm.

As for how he will use the quarterbacks going forward, Georgia coach Kirby Smart stuck repeatedly to his stance that “there is no plan.”

“I thought both guys did some good things,” Smart said. “I think Justin provided us a spark we needed at times. ... I thought Jake did a great job of commanding the offense and understanding where to go with the ball. There were some plays out there we left hanging because ... of pressure in the pocket. We’ve got to do a better job of protecting him. 

“But I was pleased with both of those guys’ play. They’re good football players.”

Holyfield was Georgia’s leading rusher with 78 yards on 16 carries, while Brian Herrien had 56 yards on nine carries and Swift 50 yards on 12.

The game’s most peculiar play came on Georgia’s first possession. On third-and-9 from the Tennessee 31-yard line, Fromm was sacked by Vols linebacker Darrell Taylor and fumbled at the 40. But Georgia tight end Isaac Nauta, who was beaten on the pass rush, grabbed the loose ball and ran to the end zone for the game’s first touchdown – officially recorded as a 31-yard fumble advance -- and a 7-0 lead. 

“As fun of a play as it ended up being, it’s probably going to be a minus on the ol’ grade sheet,” Nauta said. 

He added with a laugh: “Might need to let me get the ball a little bit more in the backfield. Actually, let’s not do that. I’ve never seen a play like that happen before. ... Not the way you want it to happen.”

Fromm’s view of the play: “I had no idea. I got hit. I think I fell down. I stood up and heard the crowd cheer and was like, ‘What the heck is going on?’ He broke a tackle, and I still couldn’t believe it when I was coming to the sideline. I had to look up at the board and see what the heck happened. 

“Really thankful the ball fell our way on that one,” Fromm said. “No, we didn’t practice that one.”

Oddly, Nauta’s score marked the third consecutive SEC game in which Georgia got its first touchdown on a return of a fumble. It also happened at South Carolina (by Juwan Taylor) and at Missouri (Tyson Campbell). 

Georgia was less fortunate when Fromm again was sacked by Darrell Taylor early in the second quarter. 

On third-and-6 from the Tennessee 16-yard line, Fromm fumbled for a loss of 9 yards. This time, the fumble was recovered, but not advanced, by Georgia center Lamont Gaillard at the 25-yard line. 

Video: Fans excited as UGA takes on Tennessee in Athens.

From there, the Bulldogs settled for a 43-yard Rodrigo Blankenship field goal and a 10-0 lead. That made Blankenship 5-for-6 from 40-plus yards this season. 

A 12-play, 70-yard, more-than-five-minute drive, on which freshman Fields and sophomore Fromm split quarterback duties, expanded Georgia’s lead to 17-0 late in the first half.

The Bulldogs converted a fourth-and-1 play on the drive, tailback Herrien running 6 yards to the Tennessee 26. Back-to-back 12-yard completions by Fromm, one to Riley Ridley and one to Jeremiah Holloman, then moved the Bulldogs  to the 2-yard line. Two plays later, Swift scored on a 1-yard run. 

Georgia’s offense gained 238 yards in the first half, while its defense limited Tennessee to 68 yards (30 rushing and 38 passing), three first downs and no journeys inside the red zone in the half.

The second half began as the first ended, with Georgia driving 75 yards in 10 plays for another touchdown and a 24-0 lead.

Fields was in at quarterback for only one play of that drive -- the last one. He scored on a 12-yard run. Earlier in the drive, Fromm completed four of four passes to four different receivers.

“Coming out in the second half, we wanted to set the tempo,” Smart said. “I thought the offense had a really good drive.”

Tennessee got on the scoreboard in the third quarter on a 37-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Jarrett Guarantano to wide receiver Josh Palmer. The Vols scored again early in the fourth quarter on a 35-yard touchdown pass from Guarantano to Ty Chandler.

Two-point conversion attempts failed after both of the Tennessee touchdowns, but the Vols had halved Georgia’s lead from 24-0 to 24-12 with 11:10 remaining in the game. 

Georgia’s offense answered the Tennessee rally with the impressive seven-minute, 39-second, quarterback-juggling, game-sealing drive.

“We struggled at times,” Smart said of his team’s overall performance. “We didn’t hit some of the plays we thought we could have. We must execute at a higher level to be successful.

“But when we had to play well in the second half, we challenged them, and they did so. It’s big when you answer a challenge, but it shouldn’t have come to that.”

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