The Georgia Bulldogs are still alive in the National Championship discussion.
For a brief period of time in the 4th quarter, this wasn’t a certainty by any stretch, but the Bulldogs made plays late in regulation, and were gifted with a huge break in overtime to cap a 34-31 victory over Tennessee.
Early, it seemed as if Georgia would cruise to victory, as they finished the 1st half with a 14-point lead at 17-3. Chris Conley made an incredible, one-handed catch to give the Bulldogs a 10-0 lead (after a long, 56-yard field goal by Marshall Morgan), and Aaron Murray tossed another touchdown pass to finish the half with the aforementioned advantage. However, even the first half didn’t go off without a hitch.
Georgia was decimated by injuries throughout the afternoon, but the highest-profile one occurred very early in the day. Running back Keith Marshall, who started in place of the already-injured Todd Gurley, took a crushing blow to his right knee, and while the exact details are unknown at this stage, he missed the rest of the game. It would be a mild surprise if Marshall returned this season after seeing the injury, and the entire morale of the sideline changed after Marshall left the field with tears in his eyes.
In addition to Marshall and Gurley, the Bulldogs also lost two big-time receiving options in the 2nd half. Michael Bennett and Justin Scott-Wesley went down within moments of one another, and without 2 of his top targets, Aaron Murray had to overcome a sudden talent disparity. Fortunately, he was up to the task, but it took until deep in the 4th quarter to find out.
Tennessee charged out of the gate in the second half, scoring on a Justin Worley touchdown pass midway through the quarter, and finishing things off with a blocked punt for a touchdown. The blocked punt was a “here we go again” moment for Georgia fans with their punting unit, but nonetheless, the scored was tied at 17-17 at the end of the 3rd.
Then, in the 4th quarter, the two teams exchanged touchdowns in short order, setting up a late surge after a 24-24 tie on the scoreboard During the Tennessee touchdown drive, Georgia was called for a defensive delay of game penalty that sent the public to their rule books, but the defense bent too much to stop the Vols. Following that, Tennessee marched the field for what looked to be the game-winning drive on the strength of multiple 4th-down conversions. The highest-profile conversion came on a 4th-and-1 that netted 28 yards on a play-action pass to A.J. Branisel, taking Vols to 7-yard-line, but the one that sticks in my mind was a 4th down call by Butch Jones on his own 30 yard line in the midst of a tie game.
After the Vols took the lead, Georgia turned to the ever-dominant Aaron Murray, and he was up to the challenge. Murray marched the Dawgs down the field on a 10-play, 75-yard drive in just 1 minute and 49 seconds to tie the game, and it was a microcosm of the senior quarterback’s greatness. He was able to move UGA down the field without the benefit of 4 of his top 6 options on the perimeter, and he finished the drive (and the game) with 3 touchdown passes and 0 interceptions. The final push across the goal line came on a 3rd-down play to Rantavious Wooten with just 5 seconds left, but it was almost as if everyone expected Murray to come through in a huge spot.
That touchdown set up overtime, and things were just getting started. Tennessee marched down the (shortened) field on their opening possession, and appeared to be heading in for a lead-taking touchdown. However, Alton Howard, in an attempt to stretch the ball over the goal line pylon, fumbled the ball through the end zone, and while it was initially ruled a touchdown, it was (rightfully) overturned as a touchback.
The gaffe from Howard opened the door wide open for Georgia, and they were able to convert despite some questionable offense. UGA went 3-and-out in short order thanks to some woeful play-calling from Mike Bobo, but Marshall Morgan was up to the challenge. The sophomore kicker split the uprights with a game-winning, 42-yard field goal, and that was that.
In addition to Aaron Murray, there were plenty of heroes for Georgia. The greatest of these, in my opinion, was freshman running back J.J. Green. Green replaced Keith Marshall in the lineup, and somehow, didn’t seem to miss a beat, as he went for a stunning 129 yards on 17 carries (7.6 yard average). It was a small glimpse into the positive future of the backfield when Gurley and Marshall inevitably exit, and Green was fantastic.
I could go on for days about the “heroes” and “goats”, but this was a “Houdini” escape for the Bulldogs. The defense let them down, yet again, at times, and the offense certainly wasn’t as explosive without all of the injured players. However, a mark of a great team is the ability to win in less-than-fortunate circumstances, and this was a pure case of that.
The Bulldogs return to action next Saturday, with a home game against the Missouri Tigers at noon Between the Hedges. Stay tuned.