Georgia defense quiets Tennessee hype: ‘Business, not personal’

ATHENS — Georgia fans started the “overrated” chant at Sanford Stadium with more than eight minutes to go Saturday. I understand the sentiment, but those hecklers got it wrong. The Volunteers had a legitimate claim to the top spot in the College Football Playoff poll. It’s just that not even Tennessee’s video-game offense can do much against Georgia’s ferocious defense.

ExploreGeorgia rout of Tennessee sends message to CFP committee

It wasn’t clear that would be the case. After the Bulldogs beat Florida last weekend, coach Kirby Smart said his defense this year isn’t quite as good as last season’s all-time great group. Smart attributed Florida’s second-half rally to Georgia’s thin defensive front wearing down. The Gators hit on a couple of long passes and missed a few other chances because of inaccurate throws.

That raised the possibility that Tennessee’s No. 1 scoring offense could poke holes in Georgia’s defense. That was my reasoning for predicting a close win for the Bulldogs. Instead, Georgia, favored by 9-1/2 points at kickoff, won 27-13. Even that two-touchdown margin is misleading.

The Bulldogs ran to a 21-3 advantage, and Tennessee never got within 15 points of the lead until it was much too late. The Vols couldn’t stage a comeback because Georgia squeezed the spirit from their celebrated offense. Tennessee scored the fewest points in 21 games with Josh Heupel as coach.

It turns out there wasn’t anything to the talk about the Vols finding cracks in Georgia’s defense. If all that praise for Tennessee’s offense bothered the Bulldogs, they weren’t saying.

“Business, not personal,” Georgia linebacker Smael Mondon said.

“Our team understood the plan and stuck to the plan,” Smart said.

On defense, that meant pressuring quarterback Hendon Hooker without the benefit of extra pass rushers. The Bulldogs frequently lined up with only three down linemen. Tennessee plays fast, so Georgia focused on lining up faster. Georgia’s defensive backs often had to cover their assignments alone.

The Bulldogs did all of that while winning the line of scrimmage and punishing ballcarriers.

Said Smart: “Physical toughness won out today for us because they are a really physical team,” Smart said. “They are extremely physical. They run the ball between the tackles, and until you take that away, it doesn’t matter what you do outside.”

Georgia defenders were everywhere the Vols tried to make plays: inside and outside, short and deep. Tennessee’s offense hadn’t looked this inept since scoring just 17 points against Georgia in Week 10 last season. The only other time Heupel’s Vols failed to score at least 24 points was in a 38-14 loss at Florida in his first SEC game as Tennessee’s coach.

ExploreAgainst Georgia’s defense amid loud crowd, Tennessee wasn’t 'fine'

Heupel’s offense had reached a new level of mystique in Year 2 at Tennessee. The Bulldogs are the first team to take it down a peg. The Vols sliced through Alabama, LSU and Kentucky. Those teams are very good on defense. They were no match for Tennessee’s fast pace, tough running and big pass plays.

The Vols couldn’t deal with Georgia’s speed and soundness or the home crowd’s noise.

“Going into the game, we said we’re not going to give them any layups,” Smart said. “If they go in for a layup, we’re fouling them.”

Smart borrowed a phrase from basketball to make the point that the Bulldogs weren’t going to allow anything easy to the Vols. They would have to work hard to make plays. When they did gain ground, the Bulldogs would make them pay physically.

That’s how it went for Tennessee. Hooker missed on a couple of open deep shots, but otherwise, there were no opportunities for big plays until garbage time. Georgia got to Hooker for six sacks and constant pressure. Runs also weren’t working for the Vols. The crowd noise made everything harder –Tennessee was penalized for seven false starts.

The only nit to pick with the Bulldogs was that their offense failed to deliver a knockout blow. Georgia totaled 21 points on five drives in the first 16 minutes and six points on five drives over the final 44 minutes. The Bulldogs lost two fumbles and failed to gain a first down with a chance to put Tennessee away late.

Georgia 27, Tennessee 13

Normally, the Bulldogs sputtering to score like that would raise alarms about what happens when they need to score a lot of points to win. But if that didn’t happen against Tennessee, will it ever?

The Vols had 54 plays of 20-plus yards in their first eight games. Star wide receiver Jalin Hyatt had 15 of those long gains. The Vols had no gains of 20 yards or more against Georgia until the final five minutes. Hyatt had five catches for 35 yards with a long of 15 up to that point, and Tennessee’s backs had gained 74 yards on 23 carries.

Tennessee’s troubles started with a mistake by its special teams. The Vols, trailing 7-3, forced a three-and-out. Tennessee’s return man let Brett Thorson’s punt bounce near the 20-yard line. The ball rolled and rolled until it went out of bounds at the 1-yard line. The Vols already were having trouble with the crowd noise. Now they were backed up at the enclosed end of the stadium.

Two Tennessee runs went nowhere. Hooker dropped back to pass on third down. Georgia’s Jalen Carter hit him as he tried to throw in the end zone. Offensive linemen Javontez Spraggins scooped up the ball and tried to advance it out of the end zone. Field officials ruled he was down at the 1-yard line.

It was a bad call, but it turns out it hardly mattered. The Bulldogs scored on the first play of the next drive. Ladd McConkey juked a safety and ran free for a 37-yard touchdown pass from Stetson Bennett. Tennessee ran four plays on its next possession before punting. Georgia needed only six plays to score on its next drive. Bennett threw another TD pass, this one to Marcus Rosemary-Jacksaint for five yards.

ExploreBreakdown: No. 3 Georgia 27, No. 1 Tennessee 13

Tennessee’s next drive ended with a field goal after back-to-back false-start penalties turned a third-and-short into a third-and-long. The Bulldogs lost some energy after that. They gained just one first down on their next drive before punting. Then Hooker converted a fourth-down run at Georgia’s 39-yard line.

The stadium got quieter. This was Tennessee’s chance to get back in the game. Hooker tried a deep pass to Cedric Tillman down the right sideline. It was too deep: Georgia’s Kelee Ringo caught Hooker’s pass in the end zone. It was clear that Tennessee’s much-hyped offense was no match for Georgia’s defense, which may not be as good as last year’s group but is still great.

After closing out the victory, Bulldogs players didn’t celebrate much on the field.

“They know humility is a week away,” Smart said.

The Vols know all about that. They came to Athens with an offense that looked unstoppable and left with their heads down after the Bulldogs humbled them.