The Battle of Athens
With 12 minutes left to play in the second quarter, it looked like Georgia’s 17-point lead would increase by the minute to the point where CBS would announce that at halftime they were switching to another game, any game, to prevent the nation from viewing the continuing carnage.
Instead, Tennessee would hold the lead before halftime after three unanswered touchdowns. It was a game that by the fourth quarter had turned into a football war — one fitting for this rivalry series already filled with crazy, memorable games.
A Red-and-Black Knife Through Orange Butter
When the Bulldogs ripped off five plays of more than 10 yards in the opening 13-play drive featuring runs around the end with short passes sprinkled in for balance, a frightening thought entered my mind — last year’s Arkansas game. The Vols couldn’t stop the drive even after Georgia faced a 2nd and 20 situation. It was just a matter of time before Georgia would start scoring more touchdowns on far less number of plays.
But when the Bulldogs regained possession after the Vols’ opening volley produced a 3-and-out with the perfunctory false start penalty by one of the Tennessee offensive linemen, a successful tip drill put the impending bloodbath on hold. Corey Miller, himself a study in personal redemption, got a paw on an Aaron Murray pass, giving safety Byron Moore time to step in front of a Bulldog wide receiver to return the intercepted pass 35 yards for an improbable TD to tie the contest, 7-7.
The pause button was disengaged, though, when on Georgia’s first play of the very next possession, freshman RB Keith Marshall ran on a simple sweep to the left behind perfectly executed run blocking that was helped by the ineptness of the 3-4 experiment.
A promising drive by Tennessee on its next possession stalled once the red zone was in sight, forcing the Vols to settle for a 34-yard field goal by the people’s kicker, Derrick Brodus. The drive nearly featured a 58-yard TD reception by Vol WR Zach Rogers who instead fell down to make the statistical big play only 22 yards. But there would be more unforeseen opportunities for Volunteer heroics.
In the meantime, Georgia proceeded to continue their disembowelment of Sal Sunseri’s troops. Only eight plays were needed for the Bulldogs to make it 21-10 on a short run by Georgia’s other sensational freshman RB, Todd Gurley. [By the way, did you know that both Marshall and Gurley are from North Carolina?]
Then, after the Bulldog defense kept the field sloped toward the Tennessee end zone with their own tip-drill-turned-interception, Gurley & Co. produced a frightening example of how poor execution can cause Vol historians to remember when Johnny Majors fired his defensive coordinator before the halfway point of a season long ago. It was a 51 yard run punctuated by missed tackle after missed tackle.
And when Vol WR Cordarrelle Patterson dropped a perfectly thrown Tyler Bray pass on the next possession to keep a potential 54-yard TD play from entering the game play ledger, Georgia’s 27-10 lead seemed not only insurmountable, but also ready to expand at an accelerating rate.
Cafego and Neyland Would Have Been Proud
But a funny thing happened on the way to the impending rout.
Forced to punt, Vol kicker Matt Darr nailed a perfect spiral that bounced inside the Bulldog 20 and proceeded to roll straight with no wobble as if someone rolled it with their hand. Nicely downed at the one yard line, the Bulldogs began a possession that started a Georgia dumpster fire. The Dawgs suddenly lost a lot of their hair in the process.
For the remainder of the half, Georgia started their possessions on their own 1, 18, 1, and 35 yard lines. In response, Tennessee began their possessions on the Georgia 50, 8, and 18 yard lines.
The field had been flipped by Darr’s masterful punt, and remained tilted by way of a stalled Bulldog drive that was followed by two Georgia fumbles, both recovered by the Vols. Each of Tennessee’s three possessions ended in a touchdown. Suddenly it was an improbable 30-27 Tennessee lead with only 0:42 left in the half.
Georgia — the entire state — was certainly more confused than shocked. Tennessee had just turned a blowout into a winnable game.
Then, one of the game’s key, but overlooked, moments took place. Bulldog QB Aaron Murray calmly completed three consecutive passes for 16, 10, and 7 yard gains to put Georgia just into field goal range with only four ticks left on the clock. Marshall Morgan kicked a 50-yard field goal to give the Bulldogs the sense that perhaps all was not lost after all.
It was 30-30 at halftime. Oh, what the reaction in stadiums around the nation must have been…
The Carnage Resumes with Vol DBs Running with Bricks in Their Shoes
It never gets old to talk about how crucial the first part of the third quarter is in a tight football game. Because it is true.
Tyler Bray made a terrible throw to Vol WR Justin Hunter, forcing Tennessee to punt on its first possession of the second half. Hunter was beginning to get open at will. But the incompletion on the 3rd and 8 was a harbinger for things to come that will haunt Tennessee’s junior QB for days to come.
Georgia quickly moved the ball into the Vol red zone on only two plays: a 38 yard pass from a perfect play action with a rollout to the right; and then a 13 yard run. When Michael Bennett caught a Murray pass on a simple slant into the endzone, the Bulldogs had taken only 2:07 of game clock for a drive to put the Vols back on their heels.
Then, as Tennessee was about to put Georgia in a field position hole with a punt from near midfield, Bulldog defender Marc Deas simply stuck an arm out as he raced by the Vol punter. The blocked punt resulted in the ball spinning on the ground, giving the Dawgs a drive starting near midfield instead of perhaps inside their own 10 yard line.
It then took only four plays for Georgia to score. On a 3rd and 7 at the Vol 32 yard line, Murray hit Michael Bennett again, this time on a simple crossing route with multiple Tennessee defenders following as if in tow.
Former Tennessee great Leonard Little immediately tweeted the following:
DBs running with bricks in their shoes.
The rout seemed to be back on.
Like One of Those Old Pictures with the Run-Path Arrow and Name Boxes
The heart of these Volunteers was now under microscopic scrutiny. None of these players had been part of a Tennessee team that could be described as having taken the fight to the opponent for sixty minutes — well, against a top-shelf SEC opponent that is.
“Adversity” seems to be a word that crops up daily across the Vol Nation. Head coach Derek Dooley himself brings it up constantly.
Once again: How would these players, on this team, respond to adversity? It has been the question of the year. It was now the question of the moment. The answer could very well seal the fate of the Tennessee coaching staff.
Down 43-30, the Vols quickly moved the ball into Georgia territory on the back of a 20-yard run by Rajion Neal and another first down run by Marlin Lane. It was suddenly first and ten on the Georgia 46 yard line.
JUCO sensation Cordarrelle Patterson lined up wide left. In motion to the right, he took a pitch on a reverse. With the ball, rolling right, he looked to throw, but pulled his arm back as he ventured across the line of scrimmage just when his quarterback laid out a defender with a textbook block. Patterson seemed to be on a leisurely stroll as he glided through the Georgia defense, moving back to the center of the field and then to the left side where he finally stoked his furnace and blew past a couple of remaining defenders into the Bulldogs’ endzone.
I immediately thought of those old black-and-white game photographs that used to hang on the walls of Stoklely Athletic Center. There was one of Johnny Butler’s great run in 1939. There was another of Hank Lauricella’s 75-yard TD run against Texas in the 1951 Cotton Bowl. That picture was taken as Lauricella was running at about the Vol 25 yard line. A curving, long black arrow is drawn on the photo showing where the former Vol great had been and was about to go. There were also little text boxes describing a variety of events taking place as Lauricella was taking off on his historic run: “Kozar takes our Georges”; “Hahn hits Menasco”; “Rechichar and Kaseta flatten Davis”… and the like.
Tennessee was suddenly down only by 7. It was 43-37 and there were more than four minutes left in the third quarter. Georgia had been knocked in the mouth by a team facing adversity.
The Roof Caves In, Again
Give Georgia credit — they answered the bell when they had to in what now was a heavyweight fight.
After a clipping penalty on the first play of the ensuing possession, which put the Bulldogs back at their own ten yard line — giving the Dawg Nation flashbacks of the field position problems of the second quarter — Murray hit a receiver for 18 yards.
And then Keith Marshall did his own impression of Hank Lauricella.
The freshman ran 72 yards for another Georgia TD.
This one wasn’t worthy of a giant mural-sized photo. It was too easy. Once again, Georgia’s sensational playmakers carved up the Tennessee defense as if they were propped-up cutouts from that photo of Lauricella’s run.
Meanwhile, Dooley had been saving his timeouts just in case. Georgia meanwhile decided to have a go at a two-point conversion. Chaos ensued for a moment, reminding one of Baton Rouge a couple of years ago. The Vols only had 9 men on the field. Timeout was called.
Now, what would be more important down the stretch — a point, or a timeout?
Georgia converted the two points, and the Vol Nation were wishing they had their full allotment of three timeouts, now down by a full 14 points, 51-37.
The Vols responded with a very quick drive into the Georgia red zone as Tennessee TE Mychel Rivera caught a 62-yard pass and rambled to the Dawgs 15 yard line.
But Tennessee’s answer to Georgia’s resolve was cut short as the Vols had to settle for a 28-yard field goal attempt on a 4th and 5 at the Georgia 10 yard line.
Bray seemed surprised at the call to not give it a go on 4th down, as did the people’s kicker, who had to be rushed onto the field.
But Brodus missed the chip shot — a hair wide left — and the walk-on kicker was left to wonder if his short stint as the starting PK’er was coming to an end (Brodus also had missed an extra point attempt earlier).
Not So Fast — Time for the Running Game to Shine
The third quarter ended, and 88 points had been scored.
It had been fun — enjoyable for the neutral portion of the national audience. But, all good things come to an end.
Not so fast — Tennessee had the gaul to show that their run game was stout enough to win a big football game in crunch time. The Vol offensive line was wearing out the Bulldog defensive front.
Georgia couldn’t find the resources to put another drive together again. So when the Vols got the ball back, they showed some old fashioned Big Orange Muscle.
The next drive was vintage Tennessee football. Behind the running of Rajion Neal and Marlin Lane, the latter RB — who many hoped to see featured — cut through the Bulldog red zone defense and scored on a 9-yard run.
It was now only a 7-point contest, at 51-44 Georgia, with a full nine minutes remaining in a game that had now entered the pantheon of classic Georgia-Tennessee clashes.
And, once again, Sunseri’s belittled troops stopped the worn out Georgia offense. Tennessee now had the ball on their own 28 yard line, and with dusk approaching, the game had the look of one of those all-timers that would be the coming out party of Tyler Bray and his head coach.
Trying to Do Too Much?
When the Vols ran the option with Bray pitching to Neal for a 9-yard gain and a first down, I thought now I’d seen about everything.
Then there was a 16-yard completion on a screen pass to Neal.
Tennessee had done pretty much what most observers all week hoped they would see on offense — the addition of wrinkles such as screens, different sets, and getting Marlin Lane more involved.
But what was about to happen was not on the faithful’s shopping list.
First and 10 at midfield. Bray decided to throw to a streaking Patterson on the left sideline. A back shoulder pass would have been perfect. Instead, Bray led his receiver in the more conventional way, resulting in Sanders Commings making an interception at the Bulldog 36 yard line.
But to make things even more dramatic, the Bulldog offense failed once again, with a three-and-out punctuated with a dropped pass on 3rd and 5. A Dawg punt gave Tennessee another shot at glory with four minutes left and the Vols at their own 26 yard line.
It didn’t matter if a wide open Rajion Neal dropped a pass. Two clutch catches by Patterson had Tennessee at the Georgia 27 with a couple of minutes to go. But after a false-start penalty, the world caved in on Tyler Bray.
Back to pass, and hanging in the pocket that was collapsing, the Vol QB tried to make room when there was none. He ran into the back of one of his lineman and then had the ball hacked loose by a Bulldog defender.
Georgia had just forced two consecutive Tennessee turnovers.
And after another three-and-out by the now-inept Bulldog offense, the Vols had only the hope of a Doug Flutie moment with only 15 seconds left on the game clock.
No shame in throwing another interception, especially when under pressure and having the ball tipped on a last-second last-gasp effort.
But history will not likely be kind to Tyler Bray when the story of this game is written.
Which is too bad considering the failures of the Tennessee defense in giving up most of Georgia’s 280 yards passing and 280 yards rushing during the first three quarters.
The October From Hell experienced by Tennessee in 2011 looked likely to repeat itself early in the second quarter of the 2012 edition of the Bulldogs-Vols rivalry.
Perhaps this season’s edition of Tennessee Football really is of a different fabric as advertised by many coming out of the Milligan College August camp. Time will tell.
But this time, for the first time in a long time, Tennessee made the father of Tennessee Football proud when his maxim of taking the fight to the opponent for a full 60 minutes finally materialized against a big-time opponent.
Now the talk over the bye week will be about the ability of Dooley’s squad to build on this positive step and gain a win in two weeks on the road in Starkville against what likely will be another undefeated SEC opponent.
I know I’m looking forward to the extra week of preparation — the Battle of Athens wore this longtime Vols fan out.