“Pretty much all my teammates came up and said, ‘Don’t worry about it. We’re behind you,’” Shockley said.
Then they went out and proved it in the No. 5 Bulldogs’ 27-14 win over No. 8 Tennessee in front of 108,470, the sixth-largest crowd in Neyland Stadium’s history. It was Georgia’s third straight win in Neyland, a place where it had won three times ever prior to 2001, and it was the Volunteers’ sixth straight home loss to a Top 10 team.
“We played a great football team, and we played great,” Coach Mark Richt said. “I just really got confirmed that we are a very united football team. I think we are championship caliber because we care about each other. We know bad things will happen, and when they do, we get stronger, I think.”
That’s what happened after Shockley threw an interception that set up the Volunteers’ only meaningful score of the game. Tennessee’s Jonathan Wade picked off a pass intended for Mohamed Massaquoi and returned it to the Tennessee 1-yard line in the third quarter.
Georgia (5-0, 3-0 SEC) had been in firm control until then, but when Rick Clausen stretched the ball over from the 1, the Volunteers pulled to within six at 13-7 with 57 seconds remaining in the quarter. On the next possession, Shockley fumbled the ball away to set up Tennessee at its 27-yard line, and a game that had been Georgia’s to lose suddenly looked very losable.
That’s when a Georgia defense that already had performed admirably, holding Tennessee scoreless in the first half in Neyland Stadium for the first time in at least 30 years and forcing two turnovers, stepped up again. It was junior safety Tra Battle this time as the Mary Persons graduate forced a Josh Briscoe fumble that gave Georgia the ball at the Vols’ 45-yard line.
“It just seemed like every time they got close, we got a turnover,” Richt said. “The defense always just found a way.”
Georgia’s offense, which gained 405 yards, failed to score on the ensuing possession, but after the Bulldogs’ stuffed another Tennessee drive, Thomas Flowers put the game away.
Flowers fielded a Britton Colquitt punt at Georgia’s 46-yard line and returned it 54 yards to put the Bulldogs ahead 20-7 with 8:50 remaining in the fourth quarter. Flowers, who became the first Tennessee opponent to take a punt back for a score since Damien Gary did it in 2001, credited his blocking for most of the return.
“It was just the deep snapper and the punter,” Flowers said. “In that situation, I like me. I just knew I had to make a play out there. It was getting loud, and I didn’t want to put that pressure on my offense.”
The defense didn’t either. Until Tennessee scored a meaningless touchdown on the final play of regulation, the Bulldogs had allowed just 36 yards on the ground and 295 overall
“Their defense is good,” said Clausen, who was 21 of 36 for 310 yards, “but they didn’t stop us that often. We shot ourselves in the foot.”
D.J. Shockley, who was making his first start against a ranked SEC opponent, finished 16 of 27 for 207 yards, and Thomas Brown led the Bulldogs in rushing with 94 yards. Nine Georgia players caught passes, led by tight end Leonard Pope, who had four receptions for 70 yards.
Georgia, which has beaten Tennessee in five of their last six games, is now two games ahead of the Volunteers (3-2, 2-2) and one game ahead of Florida (5-1, 3-1) in the SEC East. The Bulldogs face surprising Vanderbilt next week in Nashville.
“After a win like this, people might say we have an easy road to go, but we know this is the SEC,” Battle said. “You can lose any Saturday, any Saturday.”
Just not this Saturday.