There are three first-round match ups in the Best Plays of 2009 Brackety-ish Thingy left. Today, we have yet another Montario-a-Montario contest, a great do-it-all-by-himself screen play against Auburn and a game-clincher against Georgia.
Who Needs Blockers?
At stake: A decent start to the SEC season and rebuilding bragging rights. Losing to UCLA hurt, but it was an out of conference loss. Losing to Florida hurt, but that sometimes happens even in non-rebuilding years. No, Auburn was the key, the fourth game of the season and the second of the SEC slate. Win and go 3-2 and 1-2; lose and go 2-3 and 0-2. Also important was the fact that both teams were rebuilding with entirely new coaching staffs, having lost long-tenured coaches the prior season due to crucial hiring mistakes. Which program had uprighted the apple cart better and faster?
In-game context: Um, Auburn? Tennessee looked horrible and slow for most of the game. Lane Kiffin's offense began by missing a 39-yard field goal attempt. Then they punted, and then they fumbled. Then they punted four more times before finally putting a 70-yard TD drive together.
To make matters worse, legendary defensive guru Monte Kiffin was getting spanked by new Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn, who four seasons ago had been coaching high school. At the end of the half, the score was 13-6, Tigers, and Auburn had run 52 plays for 251 yards compared to 31 plays for 155 yards for Tennessee. Auburn added a field goal in the third to go up 16-6.
In the fourth quarter, though, Tennessee sort of found itself. After the Tigers scored a TD and padded the lead to 23-6, the Vols went 62 yards for a TD, the final half of which were gained by Montario Hardesty entirely by himself:
Impact: I count eight guys that Hardesty eluded on that play, the first four exclusively by himself because three (3!) screen blockers all whiffed on their assignments. The play narrowed the margin to ten points, but after the teams traded field goals and Tennessee found the end zone on a meaningless play as time expired, the score was 26-22, Auburn.
Game Over, Georgia
At stake: Chugging ahead or scrambling for the lifeboats. Tennessee was 2-3 and 0-2 in the SEC with only a closer-than-expected game in Gainesville and the fourth quarter of the Auburn game to cling to for hope. Starting 2-4 and falling to 0-3 in the SEC would embolden the Kiffin (and, by association, Tennessee) critics and add a distinctly orange tint to the crowd.
In-game context: For some reason, I remember this game as complete Tennessee dominance almost right out of the gate, perhaps because the Vols had figured out that rolling Jonathan Crompton out of the pocket was The Magic Formula. It wasn't like UT scored on every drive, though, because the game actually started with three punts. On Georgia's second drive, Chris Walker got an interception, and on Tennessee's ensuing possession, it drove 56 yards and scored on a Crompton to Gerald Jones TD. Georgia responded immediately with a 100-yard kickoff return, but the Vols answered on the next drive with a fantastic reception and touchdown run by Denarius Moore that we'll see later. The Bulldogs then added a field goal to their total, but that would be the end of the offensive points for Georgia. Tennessee added another TD, Georgia added a safety, and the teams went into halftime with UT up 21-12.
After the half, Tennessee hit a field goal, and Georgia scored on a pick six. Tennessee was playing well on offense and absolutely dominating on defense, but the score was only 24-19. That is until Montario Hardesty blew the thing wide open with just over four minutes left to go in the third quarter:
Impact: There was no looking back for the Vols after that. They added two more TDs and held Georgia scoreless the rest of the way to finish with a 45-19 victory over an SEC foe.