Georgia learns more about itself in barnburner

ATHENS, Ga. – When Georgia coach Mark Richt was finished with his ping-pong match against Tennessee, he flashed the trademark smirk of someone who has gotten away with something. 

“Well, that was fun.”

In a back-and-forth contest, one the No. 5 Bulldogs eventually won 51-44 to remain undefeated, hopes and red flags were raised in equal measures. Richt’s facial expression may have been the product of either.

Georgia’s offense scored 40 or more points for the fifth straight game and has proven to be one of the most explosive units in the country. Fifty-one points is nothing to scoff at. Then again, there was also its highly-rated defense, one of the nation’s best in 2011, which gave up 478 total yards and allowed an opponent to eclipse the 40-point mark for the first time since last season’s SEC Championship game nightmare.

In this regard, Richt gave credit to Tennessee’s potent offense, led by the efforts of talented quarterback Tyler Bray and receiver Cordarrelle Patterson.

“They’ve got some fantastic, first-round-looking receivers. Matter of fact, I think both of them ought to go pro when the year’s over,” Richt said of Patterson and Justin Hunter. “Bray really ought to go, too, I think he’s been there long enough. … [My freshmen tailbacks] are pretty good, too. And they can’t go anywhere for a while, which is nice.”

“The Freshmen” is quickly becoming shorthand for the Bulldogs’ frosh running backs Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall, and they once again produced on a national stage. The two combined for 294 yards and five touchdowns on 34 carries.

“I think they’re very good players. They’re smart players, they’re conscientious. I say it all the time, they just go to work,” Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said. “They come in every week with the right attitude and that’s what they did this week.”

Gurley entered the game as the leading rusher in a conference that features Marcus Lattimore and Knile Davis. Those two guys were hyped as Heisman contenders in the preseason, and yet a true freshman – no redshirts here – stands at the top of the mountain five games into his career. In just five games, he has already surpassed the touchdown total of his dismissed predecessor, Isaiah Crowell.

Not even Gurley saw this production coming.

“I probably would have started laughing. That’s big, for me to be a freshman [leading the SEC],” said Gurley, whose 536 yards and nine scores leads all SEC rushers. “I think about that all the time just like, ‘Yo, this is crazy.’ I’m just blessed to be in this position and I just want to keep working hard.”

Gurley carried the load for No. 5 Georgia (5-0) with 24 carries, including a 51-yard scoring scamper in the second quarter. For his part, Marshall scored on runs of 75 and 72 yards, but on this wild night in Athens, not even The Freshmen could keep the game’s momentum from swinging wildly sideline to sideline.

Trailing 27-10 following Gurley’s third touchdown, Bray and the Volunteers (3-2) capitalized on Georgia taking its foot off the gas. Two fumbles and a quick punt led to Tennessee scoring 21 points in a little more than four minutes right before halftime. Sanford Stadium, which ebbed and flowed violently as the scoreboard rang up Saturday night, was eerily silent – save, of course, for the select group of orange-clad Tennessee fans singing “Rocky Top” at the top of their lungs.

Bray finished with 281 yards on 24-of-45 passing, but added three interceptions.

The strange feel to this high-scoring conference clash – the 95 points scored were the seventh-most in SEC history for a non-overtime game – continued in the second half. As soon as Georgia’s offense began to click, the defense could not find ways to get off the field. The Bulldogs’ offense, which is much improved from just a season ago, traded blows with Tennessee as the lead fluctuated from seven points to 13 to six to 14. But when the Volunteers scored their final touchdown with 8:56 remaining, uneasiness suffocated the Sanford Stadium atmosphere.

“It gives me a heart attack, but I love having adversity and see how your guys respond. You don’t want it easy all the time, you want them guys to have to answer,” Bobo said. “How are you they gonna respond when it’s tough? How are you going to respond when you make a mistake?”

Luckily for Bobo and the rest of the red-and-black squad, when push came to shove, Georgia’s vaunted defense lived up to its reputation. Tennessee’s offense was given three separate opportunities within the final eight minutes to tie the game at 51. Each time it fell short. 

The Volunteers’ three final possessions: Interception, fumble, interception.

Much ado was made about Georgia’s defensive starters Bacarri Rambo and Alec Ogletree returning to action this weekend – for good reason, the two were the team’s leading tacklers on Saturday – but it was another player who missed time earlier this season who came up big in the final moments. Cornerback Sanders Commings, who was also suspended the first two games of the season, intercepted Bray twice in the closing moments, sealing the win for the Bulldogs one weekend prior to a showdown with No. 6 South Carolina.

And though the final product wasn’t sufficient for any Georgia defender (or defensive coordinator Todd Grantham), there is reason for optimism down the road.

“It felt great. It felt complete. … I think we can shut some teams out with those guys out there,” Commings said.

Georgia will need to take this lesson to heart before heading to Columbia, S.C., for an SEC East clash most believe will decide the division next weekend. Sure, questions will arise leading up to next week, but Richt has learned a lot about his team already. 

He knows his defense can buckle down in pivotal moments. He knows The Freshmen are the real deal. He knows his offense can put up points. And that, perhaps more than anything, is why he flashed that smirk as he took the podium. Maybe he has gotten away with something.

“I didn’t see it coming. I didn’t see it coming,” Richt said. “If you guys could have seen our first practice in the spring, you’d have just shook your head and said, ‘You’ve got no chance.’”

Well, that’s not true. Georgia does, indeed, have a chance.

And if the first five weeks have taught us anything, the Bulldogs capitalize on opportunities.