In the maturation process of this young football team, sooner or later we were going to run into one of these. Unlike the trip to Oklahoma two weeks ago, the Vols won't come back to Knoxville feeling good about how they competed. The Vols will come back to Knoxville upset at what they gave away.
A botched exchange between Nathan Peterman and Marlin Lane at the Dawg 21 yard line with the Vols down 21-17 ended Tennessee's best scoring threat of the third quarter. This came during a weird sequence where Tennessee couldn't move the ball despite excellent field position, then lost Justin Worley to an elbow injury for three series. When Worley returned, Todd Gurley had just broken a 51 yard touchdown run to put Georgia up 28-17. But the offensive fireworks were just beginning.
Worley came back in the game and unleashed three straight completions for 51 yards, the last a 31 yard touchdown to Pig Howard. The Vols were still alive after the two point conversion at 28-25.
The defense got a stop - Georgia was 1 for 10 on third down - but on one of the game's most important plays, the Dawgs' Collin Barber pinned Tennessee at its own one yard line with 4:38 to play. And after an incomplete pass, a botched exchange between Justin Worley and Jalen Hurd led to a Georgia recovery and a touchdown.
No one on either side is going to knock the performance of Hurd, who had 24 carries for 119 yards, the most by a Tennessee freshman since Jamal Lewis. And Justin Worley, good grief. Beaten up on yet another Saturday, then knocked out of the game, Worley returned to finish 23 of 35 for 264 yards, 7.5 YPA, three touchdowns and zero interceptions. This, by far, was Justin Worley's biggest moment.
But those two fumbles did the greatest damage in costing Tennessee a chance to make the outcome itself the biggest moment. Even when Worley led the Vols back downfield and Tennessee scored again to make it 35-32, UT couldn't recover the onside kick. And even when the defense once again stood its ground on third down, on 4th and 3 Todd Gurley got four. And Georgia survived, again.
Hats off to Gurley, with 208 yards on 28 carries. The Vols kept him reasonably at bay for three and a half quarters, but when the game was on the line Gurley was plenty good enough. Georgia entered the game with three running backs averaging more than 9.5 yards per carry. Sony Michel was lost for the game after just three carries for 17 yards, but on the day the Dawgs got only 5.4 per. It wasn't just progress, it was almost enough to win.
The Vol defense is so much fun to watch again. Justin Worley somehow gained even more respect today. And the Vols are still getting healthy at wide receiver. The team still, to a degree, will only go as far as the offensive line allows. We're lucky we didn't lose Worley for much longer.
But Tennessee also shot itself in the foot today with those two fumbles, taking away the opportunity it worked so hard for. This one hurts, as well it should. But there's another big opportunity coming to Knoxville in seven days. And if this team continues to grow, it will hurt itself less and take advantage more. These kids are too young and too close to buy into anything other than forward progress. And right now, the only progress left is victory.
It hurts today. But we're further along in four games than anyone thought we'd be. We're close.
Florida is coming. But so is the tipping point.