They have an almost-forgotten old nemesis to thank, as No. 17 Tennessee whipped them for three quarters and then held on for a dramatic 19-14 win in front of 92,746.
“I’d like to say I’m proud of our team,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “These kids don’t quit. We fought to the very end and made a game of it, but Tennessee was better than us today.”
That was perfectly clear for the first 50 minutes as the Volunteers Tennessee (4-1, 2-1 SEC) held Georgia to 130 yards total offense and built a 19-7 lead. The Bulldogs rallied with a 1-yard Danny Ware touchdown run with 4:22 left to close the gap to 19-14.
They got the ball back on their own 12-yard line with 2:12 left and drove to Tennessee’s 19. With one second remaining, David Greene lofted a pass into the end zone for 6-foot-9 tight end Leonard Pope, but instead it ended up in the hands of Vol linebacker Jason Mitchell on a play that was officially scored an incomplete pass.
The last play was a fitting end for an offense that couldn’t find its way all day.
“We just had a miscommunication,” Greene said. “I was going to throw a jump ball to Pope, and he broke off the route.
The Bulldogs were 13-point favorites to extend their winning streak in the series to five games and were coming off a nearly flawless 45-16 win over LSU. Tennessee was coming off an ugly 34-10 home loss to Auburn.
“It’s hard to follow a big win like they had last week, and I don’t think they totally respected us, to be honest with you,” Tennessee coach Phil Fulmer said.
The loss snapped a 17-game home winning streak for the Bulldogs.
“This is the one I had on my schedule all year,” said Tennessee receiver Tony Brown. “We went through winter and summer workouts with Georgia circled on our schedules.”
Georgia had national championship aspirations and its fans were scoreboard watching all day, hoping No. 1 Southern Cal and No. 2 Oklahoma would lose so the Bulldogs could take the top ranking. Now Georgia needs help, not to mention much better performances, just to get back to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game.
“We were on an emotional peak last week,” Richt said. “This week, I thought we were very business-like, and I thought we were ready to play. As it turns out, they were more ready than we were.”
Richt reminded his players in the postgame locker room that LSU lost once last year and then went on to win the national title, but he wouldn’t address that with the media.
“We can’t even get out of the East right now,” he said. “We’re just going to be fighting like made to beat Vandy next week.”
Tennessee is in firm control of the SEC’s Eastern Division thanks to wins over the Bulldogs and Florida.
The Bulldogs (4-1, 2-1) benefited from a questionable fumble by the Volunteers and three missed James Wilhoit field goals, but those gifts were buried under a mountain of mistakes and missed opportunities.
At the top of the blame list was the offense. Starting quarterback David Greene was coming off a school-record five-touchdown game against LSU and was facing the nation’s No. 92 passing defense against the Vols. However, he had only 41 passing yards midway through the first quarter and seven of his first eight drives ended in five or fewer plays and zero points.
“The first three quarters I felt like a non-factor in the game,” said Greene, who finished 15 of 34 for 163 yards. “As much as went our way last week, nothing went our way this week, nothing.”
The Bulldogs only score in the first three quarters came when backup quarterback D.J. Shockley led a seven-play, 63-yard touchdown drive on the third series of the game, hooking up with roommate Fred Gibson on a 24-yard touchdown pass with 10:44 left in the half.
“We just didn’t get anything going,” Gibson said. “But this didn’t have anything to do with the LSU game.”
Georgia finished with 265 yards of total offense, 209 through the air and just 56 on the ground.
There were other factors, including 12 penalties for 82 yards, a questionable fake punt call in the third quarter that failed and led to Tennessee’s final touchdown, and a missed 29-yard field goal by Andy Bailey.
The Volunteers were led by Gerald Riggs, who had 102 rushing yards on 26 carries, and true freshman quarterback Erik Ainge, who was coming off a four-interception performance but rebounded to go 12 of 21 for 150 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions.
“We never got them in a position where they could feel the pressure of the game or the pressure of our fans,” Richt said.