‘Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide’: How Georgia shut down Tennessee

  • Senior college football writer
  • Author of seven books on college football
  • Graduate of the University of Georgia

ATHENS, Ga. — A video showed up on social media this week. It was taken across the street from the Georgia football team’s practice fields. Viewers couldn’t see what was going on behind the brick wall, but they could definitely hear coach Kirby Smart screaming into a bullhorn.

In fact, anyone about 70 miles away in Atlanta might have heard him.

“All this finger-pointing bulls—,” Smart screamed at his defense. “Every other team in America, you know what they do? They say, ‘It’s his fault! It’s his fault! It’s his fault!’ Why do they get free layups? It’s because they don’t f—ing concentrate!”

Smart and his staff knew the challenge their defense was going to face in Saturday’s SEC East showdown against No. 1 Tennessee. The high-flying Volunteers led the FBS in scoring with 49.4 points per game. Quarterback Hendon Hooker was a leading Heisman Trophy contender, if not the favorite. Receiver Jalin Hyatt led the country with 14 touchdown catches.

If the Volunteers were the college football version of the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels under Jerry Tarkanian, then Smart wanted to make sure his defense played like the Georgetown Hoyas under John Thompson. The Bulldogs were going to be tough and physical. They were going to punch the Volunteers in the mouth, no matter how fast they tried to play.

“Going into the game, what did we say we were not gonna do? We’re not giving layups,” Smart said. “If they go in for a layup, we’re fouling them. We’re not giving layups and we stayed away from the layups. No disrespect to those other teams [that Tennessee previously played]. They had a good plan too, but if you make it hard and complicated, you can’t do it fast enough.

“Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. That was our theme. We told them we wanted to play them right in our box.”

The Bulldogs didn’t give up many layups, or much of anything else, in a 27-13 victory at Sanford Stadium, which might have been the most lopsided two-touchdown game in the sport’s recent history.

The Volunteers didn’t get into the end zone until Georgia played prevent defense with a 21-point lead late in the fourth quarter. The Bulldogs sacked Hooker six times. He threw 33 times but averaged only 5.9 yards per attempt. Georgia’s defenders let Tennessee’s receivers get behind them only a couple of times, and like almost everything else for the Volunteers on a miserable day, they couldn’t connect.

“The players had to unselfishly buy into the plan because the plan included not rushing up the field, not running past the quarterback’s level, pushing the pocket,” Smart said. “We wanted him to be uncomfortable in the pocket and our kids did that.”

In practice this week, Smart said defensive players’ reps nearly doubled to get them accustomed to facing Tennessee’s break-neck pace on offense. Instead of going 24 plays in a 12-minute period, Georgia’s defenders might have gone 35 or 40.

“When you play Tennessee, they go for the knockout blow in the first round,” Smart said. “You’ve got to survive it, and I don’t like surviving anything. We want to attack it, but with them it’s about surviving that knockout blow.”

That knockout blow never came, and Georgia delivered a couple of early blows of its own to the Volunteers on quarterback Stetson Bennett’s 13-yard scramble for a score and a pair of touchdown throws to Ladd McConkey and Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint. The Bulldogs led 24-6 at the half, and then used a 15-play, 67-yard drive for a field goal that took nearly nine minutes off the clock in the third quarter. Tennessee’s offense couldn’t score if it wasn’t on the field.

Making matters worse for the Volunteers, it was difficult for them to communicate because of the deafening crowd noise. Sanford Stadium was as loud as it ever has been in its 93-year history. A sold-out crowd of 92,746 fans roared every time Tennessee’s offense had the ball. The Volunteers were penalized seven times for false starts. When they reached the red zone early in the second quarter, back-to-back false starts forced them to kick a field goal.

“The crowd noise was effective,” Hyatt said. “Sometimes we could not hear the snap or the play call from Hooker. I give credit to the fans. That would probably be the biggest thing that got us today.”

Once Georgia took a 21-point lead late in the third quarter, its defense teed off on Hooker and never allowed him to get comfortable. He was sacked three times on one possession in the fourth quarter; a fourth sack was wiped out by a face-mask penalty.

“They play extremely hard,” Hooker said. “They gave us some great looks. We had some miscommunication up front. I felt pretty good in the pocket though. I spent a little more time in there than usual toward the end.”

If taking control of the SEC East wasn’t enough incentive for the Bulldogs this week, Smart received a gift from the College Football Playoff selection committee on Tuesday, when it ranked Georgia third in its initial rankings, behind Tennessee and Ohio State.

After winning the program’s first national championship in 41 years in 2021, Georgia lost 15 players to the NFL draft, including eight defensive starters. The Bulldogs dominated Oregon 49-3 in their opener, but almost seemed bored in closer-than-expected wins over Kent State and Missouri. There was also a sloppy third quarter in last week’s 42-20 victory against Florida. Tennessee was everyone’s new favorite SEC flavor.

Its offense is fun and scores in a hurry. The ragtag bunch of transfers and their second-year coach, Josh Heupel, ended a 15-game losing streak to Alabama in a thrilling 52-49 victory at Neyland Stadium on Oct. 15. The Vols rolled past then-No. 19 Kentucky 44-6 last week.

More than 90% of the money wagered on the game in Las Vegas was placed on Tennessee. As usual, oddsmakers must have known more than the public, as the Bulldogs were still a 9-point favorite. The outcome is yet another reminder of why Las Vegas casinos have marble floors.

Georgia players wouldn’t admit it, but they had to be sick and tired of hearing how good the Volunteers were.

“We felt like we were the reigning [champions], you’ve got to come and see us on our field,” Bennett said. “I think we played like it. We attacked this week and it was pretty sweet.”

With three games left to play, the Bulldogs are in position to reach the SEC championship game for the fifth time in the past six seasons. They’ll have to win one of their next two games on the road, at Mississippi State next week and then at Kentucky on Nov. 19, to clinch the SEC East. They close the regular season at home against rival Georgia Tech.

For four quarters on Saturday, there was no doubt which team should be No. 1. It is the same one that finished the 2021 season atop the rankings.

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