Turnover at goal line dooms Vols
KNOXVILLE — The Tennessee Volunteers debuted their new Smokey Gray uniforms in Saturday’s game against the Georgia Bulldogs, hoping to reverse a difficult trend over the past four seasons.
The last time Tennessee wore anything but orange at home was in a game against South Carolina in 2009 when they blew out the Gamecocks 31-13. The Volunteers have not defeated a ranked team since.
The new jerseys must have brought a spark to the team as Tennessee played inspired football, making three huge fourth and one conversions in the fourth quarter and took the number six team in the nation into overtime. But in the end, the result was one UT fans have grown painfully accustomed to: a 34-31 loss in overtime.
Despite the disappointing set-back, there were many positives in the game as quarterback Justin Worley threw for 215 yards and a touchdown and Rajion Neal carried the ball 28 times for 148 yards and two scores. Multiple Tennessee freshmen continue to make huge plays and Neyland Stadium was rocking like in the old days which had to impress multiple recruits who were on campus for an official visit on Saturday.
“I am very proud of every single individual on our football team,” Tennessee head coach Butch Jones said. “We saw a football team that was undermanned lay it all on the line. We have to learn how to finish but I am proud to be their head football coach.”
Trailing 17-3 at the break, Tennessee started to slowly but surely chip into the lead. The Vols caught a break when Marshall Morgan’s 39-yard field goal plunked off the left upright. Tennessee took advantage of the miscue when Worley threw a pass to left side of the end zone where Marquez North was somehow able to keep his toes in bounds on a 19-yard touchdown catch to make it 17-10.
And then came the biggest defensive play in a key game in years for the Volunteers. Palardy boomed a 57-yard punt to the UGA 14 and the defense held on three straight plays. On the Georgia punt, Jalen Reeves-Maybin busted through the line and blocked the kick and Devaunn Swafford scooped it up at the 15 yard line and found pay dirt to tie the score at 17-17 as Neyland Stadium’s 102,455 screaming fans went nuts.
Georgia answered as Brendan Douglas capped a drive that took only a minute and half off the clock with a three-yard run on the first play of the fourth quarter.
Jones would roll the dice three times in the fourth quarter when his team was facing a fourth and one situation. The gamble paid off the first time as Neal took the ball and didn’t stop until he got all the way to the Georgia 23 yard line on a 43 yard run. Five plays later, Neal blasted into the end zone and Palardy’s point after tied it at 24-24.
The Tennessee defense held the Dawgs and forced a punt on the next possession and started their next drive from their own 20.
The Vols were facing a fourth and one at their own 29 yard line when Jones went for it for the second time. Neal picked up the first down on a run.
Later in the drive, Tennessee was at the Georgia 35 yard line and facing a fourth and one once more and for the third straight time, the Vols went for it. For the third time the gamble worked as Worley threw a great pass to freshman A.J. Branisel on a 28-yard completion that took the ball all the way to the Georgia seven yard line. Neal would score from seven yards out to give the Vols their first lead of the game.
“We have the best offensive line in the SEC,” Jones said when asked why he went for it on fourth down in the fourth quarter.
Tennessee may have scored too early, however, as Aaron Murray and the Bulldogs had 1:54 and a timeout to drive the field. Georgia was methodical on the drive as Murray found Wooten for a two-yard touchdown with five seconds remaining. Morgan’s kick tied the game and sent it into overtime tied at 31-31.
Tennessee got the ball to begin the extra frame and moved all the way to the Georgia seven yard line. Pig Howard appeared to have stretched across the goal line for the score but video review showed the ball slipped out of his hand before he got it across the line which resulted in a touchback and gave Georgia the ball.
The Bulldogs ran three plays but were content to put the outcome of the game on the toe of Morgan. The Ft. Lauderdale native did not disappoint as he kicked a 42-yard chip shot for the victory.
“Our kids are buying it and it kills me to see them hurt like this because they have given everything,” Jones said of his team. “I feel for our kids because they have been through so much.”
One of the most valuable assets a football team can have is a sure-footed kicker and the Bulldogs showed why they have one of the best in the business as Morgan boomed a 56-yard field goal for the game’s first points. The kick, which would have been good from 60 yards or more, was the longest ever kicked against the Volunteers.
The Bulldogs produced the first touchdown of the contest late in the first quarter when Chris Conley made a one-handed grab for a one-yard score. Morgan’s PAT was true and Georgia lead 10-0.
Tennessee’s only scoring of the first half came off the foot of Michael Palardy who kicked a 26-yard field goal to cap an 11-play, 59 yard drive.
On Georgia’s next scoring drive, Murray became the SEC career passing leader when he found Conley for a 24-yard strike on a fourth and four play down to the Tennessee 15 yard line. A few plays later, Murray found Wooten for a four yard throw and catch. Martin’s point after gave UGA a 17-3 lead and that would be the way the first half would end.
- By Marlin Curnutt, Tribune Correspondent