The Bulldogs had dominated Tennessee on both sides of the ball, but with a little more than two minutes remaining in the first half, the Volunteers trailed by less than a touchdown.
In those two minutes, however, head coach Mark Richt said his offensive line grew up, his quarterback was the perfect leader and his team engineered a 97-yard drive that exorcised the demons of two straight losses to Tennessee and helped erase the memories of a brutal defeat at the hands of Alabama two weeks ago.
“I think everybody knew what time it was,” said receiver Mohamed Massaquoi, who finished the drive with a 9-yard touchdown. “We’re self-motivated guys, and we’re very competitive, so we knew it was time for us to step up and start making plays.”
The Bulldogs followed that drive with a dominant defensive performance in the second half to top Tennessee 26-14 – their first win over the Volunteers in three years.
The drive was a turning point for the Bulldogs, but it wasn’t the final destination.
In truth, the drive shouldn’t have been necessary, but Georgia’s dominance in the game wasn’t reflected in the final score.
The Bulldogs outgained Tennessee 458-209, had 12 more first downs, ran 36 more plays and held the Volunteers to just 1 yard rushing.
Struggles in the red zone, however, kept Georgia from breaking the game open, and Matthew Stafford threw two interceptions deep in Tennessee territory – including one in the end zone – both of which the Volunteers turned into touchdowns of their own.
“At the end of the day, we value the win all the same,” Massaquoi said. “Of course we wanted to put more points on the board, but being that we didn’t, it just lets us know we haven’t arrived yet, and we have to correct some mistakes.”
It was Massaquoi who rallied the Bulldogs on the 97-yard drive.
Georgia took the ball at its own 3, and after Knowshon Moreno picked up a first down, Stafford went to Massaquoi on two straight passing plays. The first resulted in a 14-yard gain. The second fell incomplete, but proved to be an even bigger play.
Massaquoi was laid out by Tennessee’s Demetrice Morley along the sideline, but a personal-foul penalty gave Georgia a first down. The senior receiver was dizzied on the sideline, but tried to charge back onto the field before the ball was snapped on the next play. Coaches were forced to hold Massaquoi back to make sure he wasn’t hurt before letting him back on the field two plays later.
“When one of your best players and finest leaders is hit like that and lays on the ground for a while, nobody likes that,” Richt said. “It creates energy and emotion to defend your man, and that’s what our guys did.”
Georgia charged down the field and just five plays after the hit, Stafford found Massaquoi in the corner of the end zone for the touchdown and a 20-7 halftime lead.
Stafford set a career high with 310 passing yards in the game – the first 300-yard day of his career – but it was on that drive when he impressed the most.
“As composed as can be,” Massaquoi said of Stafford’s performance. “Composed with that little fire in his eye.”
The defense had plenty of fire, too.
Both of Tennessee’s touchdowns came off turnovers, and the Volunteers failed to establish any ground game against a stout Georgia front.
Arian Foster, who had shredded the Bulldogs for six touchdowns in their past two meetings, was held to four yards on three carries.
“One of our main priorities as a defense is to first stop the run,” linebacker Akeem Dent said. “That played a big role in our success, just getting them in positions where they had to throw the ball.”
Tennessee mustered just 101 second-half yards in a futile comeback attempt – including minus-6 on the ground – and Georgia remained in control throughout.
The problems in the red zone, however, added a tinge of frustration to the Bulldogs’ day of redemption.
Georgia was forced to kick four field goals in the game – three coming in the red zone – and Stafford’s two interceptions hurt. So despite the impressive statistics, those will be the numbers will be a focal point in practice this week, wide receiver Kenneth Harris said. They just won’t overshadow the win.
“Maybe there was some plays here and there that we could have made, penalties here and there we shouldn’t have had, but a win’s a win, especially in the SEC,” Harris said. “There’s some things we can work on, but I’m confident we’ll fix them.”