After trailing No. 18 Tennessee (2-1) 14-10 at halftime, the No. 3 Georgia Bulldogs (3-0) ratcheted up their offense in the second half to blow the Vols out 44-21. Saturday’s meltdown mimicked last season’s game against Georgia, as they played the Bulldogs close in the first half before losing 43-14.
However, the Vols are currently in a much different position this time around. The loss in Athens is the first of the season, whereas the 2019 squad picked up their fourth loss when they fell to the Bulldogs in Neyland Stadium. The Vols went on to lose just one more game in 2019, against Alabama.
Here are four takeaways from Tennessee’s first loss of the season.
Vol Defense Making Stops When it Counts
The Tennessee defense put the Vols in position to win the first half by holding Georgia to just ten points.
The defense opened up the game with a fumble recovery touchdown by Kivon Bennet, and the Vols followed the touchdown with a defensive stop on Georgia’s second drive.
“We didn’t start the way we needed to,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. “We’ve got to show a lot of improvement in a lot of areas and just disappointed in our start to the game. Anytime you spot somebody seven [points], that’s not good.”
The Vols gave up touchdown runs to quarterback Stetson Bennett IV and halfback Zamir White later in the quarter. However, the Vols were able to slow the Bulldogs’ scoring enough to retake a 21-17 lead with two deep touchdown passes from Jarrett Guarantano to Josh Palmer. The Vols then got the biggest defensive stop of the half when Georgia marched to the Vols’ one-yard line before turning the ball over on downs as time expired in the half.
Though the defense gave up two scores and 225 total yards in the first half, the Vols were able to get stops when it mattered most, which allowed Tennessee to capture a small halftime lead.
Tennessee Unable to Keep up in Shootouts
Tennessee stopped Georgia on four of seven drives in the first half, but the Vols gave up 27 points on the Bulldogs’ next five drives in the form of two passing touchdowns, a defensive touchdown and two field goals.
Led by Jones County Community College transfer, Bennett IV, the Georgia offense put up 193 rushing yards and 238 passing yards against Tennessee. Though Tennessee recovered two fumbles and made five tackles for a loss, the Vols were unable to force an interception, and Tennessee finished the game with just one sack.
Jarrett Guarantano’s Struggles Continue, Running Game Struggles Begin
The Vol defense is not solely to blame, as the offense went scoreless in the second half and gave up a fumble recovery touchdown to Monty Rice late in the game.
Guarantano gave up a fumble and an interception on Tennessee’s first two second-half drives, essentially giving the Georgia offense two field goals and an early second-half lead.
“In the first half we were able to take advantage of them in the passing game,” Guarantano said. “In the second half they made some good adjustments and they came in and played a lot of cloud defense, some cover 2 and they were able to stop the run and the pass.”
Guarantano finished the night with 215 passing yards and two passing touchdowns. The Georgia defense began to blitz Guarantano in the second half, forcing five total sacks in the game while Guarantano and the offensive line struggled to adjust.
Josh Palmer was once again a bright spot on the offense finishing with four catches for 71 yards and two scores while serving as Guarantano’s top wide receiver. The senior receiver has allowed Tennessee to take shots down the field while Ramel Keyton, Brandon Johnson and the Vol running backs slice up defenses underneath.
Guarantano has been up and down during his time at Tennessee, but Vol running backs Ty Chandler and Eric Gray have been consistent chain-movers for the Tennessee offense. However, Gray and Chandler were only able to pick up 37 yards on 16 combined carries against Georgia’s strong defensive front.
“We didn’t run the ball very well at all,” Jeremy Pruitt said. “It’s tough to win that way when you become one-dimensional.”
Guarantano, Gray, Chandler and the rest of the Vol offense will look to rebound next week against a much softer Kentucky defense.
Rebounding Against Kentucky
Tennessee’s first loss of the 2020 season broke their eight-game win streak. Now, the Vols get a one-game break from playing ranked teams when they face Kentucky (1-2) in Knoxville on Saturday before they face No. 2 Alabama.
The Wildcats dropped their first two games of the season to No. 8 Auburn and Ole Miss, giving up 71 total points in the process. However, the Kentucky defense stepped up this week in a 24-2 rout of Mississippi State.
No game in Tennessee’s all-SEC season is a guaranteed victory, but the Kentucky secondary should give Tennessee some open shots down the field. The Wildcats gave up over 500 passing yards and seven passing touchdowns in their first two games of the season.
Kickoff between the Vols and the Wildcats in Neyland Stadium is slated for noon on Saturday, Oct. 17.
Edited by Maddie Torres
Featured image courtesy of Getty Images/UGAWIRE