Photo by Photo: Craig Cappy
ATHENS -- At least one struggling Southeastern Conference team knew it was going to get well in Saturday's game between Georgia and Tenneseee.
And it turned out to be the host Bulldogs, who cashed in on three Volunteer turnovers for 17 points to build up a big halftime lead en route to a 41-14 victory before an announced crowd of 92,746 at Sanford Stadium.
It was as dominating a performance for Georgia -- which rolled up 402 yards in total offense. Aaron Murray completed 17 of 25 passing for 266 yards and two touchdowns and rushed for 41 yards and two more scores.
But as good as the offense peformed, the Bulldogs took advantage of ever Tennessee mistake. And after a week of much consternation among fans and the media, all was right with the Bulldog Nation once again -- at least, for one Saturday -- especially with Georgia gaining a measure of payback from the Volunteers after a 45-19 loss last season in Knoxville.
"It feels real good," Georgia coach Mark Richt said. "The guys prepared hard and they played with the mental attitude they needed to have. They played the full 60 minutes. I am proud of them. I am thankful for the victory. I feel good right now."
Turnovers were the key.
The Bulldogs (2-4, 1-3) came into Saturday's game with a minus-1 giveaway/takeaway margin, while Tennessee (2-4, 0-3) was plus-4 on the season.
However, it was Georgia that won the turnover battle Saturday, and it very much influenced the final score.
"Early in the game, I don't care who you're playing, when you spit the ball up (three) times in your own territory, I mean, we can't play anybody and expect to hang in there, especially a team that played the way Georgia played," Tennessee coach Derek Dooley said. "Give them a lot of credit for how they played. I thought we got affected being on the road. We didn't keep our composure very well, and the result was, we got run out of the stadium."
Georgia offense's actually got started without the benefit of a turnover behind the legs of Murray on its first possession.
The redshirt freshman broke from the pocket twice during the Bulldogs' opening six-play, 73-yard drive.
The first time was for 9 yards to the Tennessee 47-yard line. Two plays later, Murray dropped back to throw and couldn't find an open receiver, but did find running room to the right, and he took off and sprinted 35 yards before diving into the end zone to give Georgia a 7-0 lead with 8:18 left in the first quarter.
"We knew that we were capable of coming out and playing like this," Murray said. "We've played like this before, but we haven't been able to get it into the end zone. (Saturday), we were able to put some good drives together and score, which is big for us.
"We never fell apart throughout all of this. We are going to keep fighting and keep being physical."
The Bulldogs' defense then came up with a huge play when Vance Cuff batted a Matt Simms pass that appeared to be headed for a wide-open Justin Hunter.
Bacarri Rambo hauled in the loose ball and got a foot down before falling out of bounds to give the Bulldogs possession near midfield.
But despite driving as deep as the Tennessee 15, a third-down sack of Murray forced Georgia to settle for a 42-yard field goal from Blair Walsh to push its lead to 10-0 with 2:15 left in the opening frame.
However, the Bulldogs got another chance after Tennessee's Eric Gordon had the ball knocked away from him by Jordan Love after what had been a good return, and Derek Owens pounced on the ball at the Volunteers' 41.
Bulldog fans then held their collective breath after A.J. Green took a vicious hit while hauling in a 33-yard completion from Murray down to the 8.
The junior was stayed down on the turf for a few minutes, but eventually walked off the field under his own power.
And Murray got the Bulldog nation breathing again when he hit Rontavious Wooten with an 9-yard touchdown pass two plays later, which extended the Georgia lead to a whopping 17-0 with 55 seconds left in the first quarter.
But Tennessee wasn't going down without a fight.
Sims competed four straight passes on the next possession, including a 38-yard scoring strike to Hunter under heavy pressure for a score to pull the Volunteers two within 17-7 just 3:02 into the second quarter.
However, yet another Tennessee turnover allowed Georgia to regain momentum late in the half.
This time, it was a muffed punt by Gordon that gave the Bulldogs possession on the Volunteers 37.
Three plays later, Murray connected with Green on a slant route for a 22-yard touchdown to push the lead back to 17 points at 24-7 with 6:41 left in the half, and a 20-yard Walsh field goal with 2:15 left sent Georgia into intermission with a 27-7 lead.