"It was just an incredible effort the second half," head coach Phillip Fulmer said on his post-game show. "This is a huge win for us, another step in the right direction. These kids have been fighting and scratching for respect, giving great effort."
This game had it all, including three special-teams touchdowns. Georgia scored on a 100-yard kickoff return by Thomas Brown and an 85-yard punt return by Mikey Henderson. Tennessee scored when Antonio Wardlow blocked a punt and recovered it in the end zone.
Ultimately, a high-octane passing game and an opportunistic defense proved decisive for the 13th-ranked Volunteers, now 5-1 overall and 1-1 in SEC play. Florida leads the SEC East at 4-0, including a win over Tennessee, but Fulmer isn't ready to make a concession speech just yet.
"We're still in this thing," he said. "We're looking for some help but we're still in this thing to make a run at the conference championship."
"Erik managed the game very well," Fulmer noted. "He was throwing the football, laying it off some, throwing the screens, stepping up in the pocket and making some plays that way. He just did it all for us."
Tennessee's defense did the rest. After being shredded in the first half, the stop unit dominated thereafter. Georgia's six second-half possessions ended with an interception, a field goal, an interception, a blocked punt, a lost fumble and yet another interception.
"There was some serious butt-chewing going on on the defensive side in the first half," Fulmer noted.
The butt-chewing was understandable. Tennessee defenders allowed an 18-yard completion on a third-and-16, a 34-yard completion on a third-and-16 and a 47-yard completion on a third-and-13. They also allowed Georgia to pick up huge chunks of yardage on the ground.
"On third-and-long we'd give up a play," Fulmer noted. "And running the ball like that against us was just unheard-of. But the second half we did a lot better.... We blocked a punt, we got off the field. We did a really good job defensively in the second half."
Once Tennessee got Georgia looking for the pass, the Vol ground game flourished. After missing the past two games with an ankle injury, Arian Foster bounced back in a big way. The sophomore tailback came off the bench to rush 15 times for 63 yards and scored three touchdowns on one-yard runs.
"It's great to have him back," Fulmer noted. "That last touchdown he almost did it by himself. It was a tremendous effort on his part.... He did a great job getting the tough yards for us."
Starting tailback LaMarcus Coker looked good, as well, adding 57 yards on 12 carries. Fulmer thought the Vols' injury-riddled offensive linemen deserved some credit for the success of the ground game.
"They dang sure manned up tonight," the coach said. "Arron Sears and Anthony Parker – not practicing all week – did a fabulous job. David Ligon has been a yeoman, as far as getting the work done. Eric Young played against one of the best players in the country (Quentin Moses) a large part of the night and did not give up a sack."
Fullback Brannan Southerland sandwiched a one-yard TD plunge and an eight-yard TD reception around Henderson's 85-yard punt return as Georgia (5-1 overall, 2-1 SEC) built its 24-7 lead. After that, it was all Vols.
Foster scored to cap an 11-play, 65-yard drive that narrowed the gap to 24-14 just 50 seconds shy of halftime.
"Going in down by only 10 points was huge," Fulmer conceded. "I thought that gave us a lot of momentum."
Shortly after an Antwan Stewart interception at Georgia's 19-yard line on the third play of the third period, Ainge scored on a one-yard sneak to pull the Vols within 24-21. Georgia's Andy Bailey and Tennessee's James Wilhoit swapped field goals, then things got downright crazy.
The Vols' Jonathan Wade intercepted a Joe Tereshinski pass at the Bulldog 36-yard line. Ainge hit Meachem four plays later for a 31-27 lead. Wardlow scored on his blocked punt 86 seconds later but the 38-27 lead lasted just 18 seconds, as Brown took the ensuing kickoff from one end zone to the other. A failed two-point conversion pass left the score 38-33 with 12:34 to play.
With 92,000-plus zealous Bulldog boosters going wild, Brown's electrifying return could've spurred the home team to victory. But it didn't. A 32-yard kickoff runback by Coker set up a 55-yard TD drive and a Jerod Mayo fumble recovery set up a 36-yard TD drive as Tennessee finished with a flourish, outscoring Georgia 44-9 over the game's final 34 minutes.
Tennessee has an open date this weekend, then hosts Alabama Oct. 21.