A second-half meltdown by Tennessee’s offense and quarterback and a disappointing performance by a highly touted offensive line spelled doom for the Vols against one of the SEC’s elite teams.
Georgia’s defensive dominated UT’s blockers, forced three turnovers in the second half and pulled away for a 44-21 victory Saturday at Sanford Stadium in Athens, Ga.
The one-sided score masked a decent performance by a Tennessee defense that held Georgia ‘s offense in check – including a resounding goal-line stand at the end of the first half – until a second-half tsunami of turnovers thwarted any chance No. 12 Tennessee had against the third-ranked team in the country.
For the fourth year in a row, Georgia’s defense manhandled Tennessee’s O-line. The Vols, who averaged 66 rushing yards in the previous three games against the Dawgs, was limited to 1 yard (counting sacks) on 27 carries. Ty Chandler, the SEC’s leading rusher, had 11 yards on eight carries. Eric Gray had 25 yards and eight attempts.
UT’s talented offensive line – featuring four five-star players – was simply overwhelmed.
“To win in this league,’’ Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt said, “you have to be able to run the football.’’
Georgia outrushed UT 193 yards to minus-1. Georgia had minus-30 on a first possession bad snap. UT had minus-40 in sacks.
While Georgia was whipping Tennessee’s offensive line, Pruitt pointed to another key to the loss.
“You can’t turn the ball over three times against anybody and expect to win,’’ Pruitt said.
Despite being outplayed in many aspects of the game, Tennessee led 21-17 at halftime, thanks to a defensive touchdown and a terrific goal-line stand to end the half.
“It was strong,’’ receiver Josh Palmer said of UT’s mindset at halftime. “We were convinced we were going to win the game.’’
Linebacker henry To’o to’o, who led UT with 11 tackles, also felt good.
“Definitely,’’ he said. “When you’re winning and you’re up, you feel confident. But you have to be able to play all four quarters and that’s something we didn’t do today.’’
No the Vols didn’t. It started with a disastrous third quarter when quarterback Jarrett Guarantano imploded under a barrage of pressure. After a strong first half (11 of 13 for 124 yards and two touchdowns) he had three fumbles (he lost two) and an interception in the second half.
That turned a 21-17 Tennessee halftime lead into a blowout.
“Georgia did a lot of things in the second half I’m not sure of,’’ Guarantano said. “Their performance was better than us.’’
He added: “I’m sick to my stomach. It was my last opportunity to beat Georgia.’’
Guarantano said Georgia’s run defense – No. 1 in the SEC — was better than he anticipated. Indeed, when Georgia stuffed UT’s run game, it teed off on Guarantano, who had no answers in the second half.
Georgia has now outscored Tennessee 166-47 in four games against coach Kirby Smart. And UT has now lost 34 in a row to a top 10 team.
Tennessee challenged Georgia for more than a half, scoring in the first minute on a fumble recovery in the end zone, then connecting on 37- and 27-yard scoring passes to Josh Palmer.
The goal-line stand to end the first half not only gave UT the halftime lead, but a nice slice of the momentum.
But it didn’t last long as Georgia’s pass rush harassed Guarantano into several costly mistakes, returning one fumble for a touchdown to account for the final score.
While Tennessee tries to separate itself from the second-tier of the SEC East, it clearly has not caught up to Georgia.
For Tennessee to take the next step, it must run the ball effectively and get better play from the quarterback position.
Guarantano did well in the first half. But he was awful in the second half, playing like the guy who got benched multiple times last year.
“Every single player on the team needs to get better – including myself,’’ said Guarantano, who is 0-6 against UT’s top three SEC rivals.
Guarantano might have close to getting benched in the second half at Georgia, given his three turnovers.
But Pruitt didn’t see a need for a change.
“I really don’t know where that would’ve helped,’’ Pruitt said, blaming much of the problem on pass protection. “If you can’t run the football., it’s a tough day’s work.’’
Palmer was asked if he still trusts Guarantano.
“One-hundred percent,’’ he said.
Perhaps. But Tennessee can’t beat ranked teams with Guarantano playing like that. It can’t beat teams when its offensive line gets mauled.
And it probably won’t beat Kentucky, the Vols’ next opponent, unless the quarterback plays better and the offensive line blocks somebody.