Instant Analysis: Tennessee-Georgia

Staff Columnist
Posted Oct 7, 2006

By looking at the final score, you'd think no defense was played in this game. But on a night when both teams had about 30 minutes of good defense in them, it was Tennessee's crew that turned things around in Athens.

In a calculator game that was weirdly out of place in the old-school SEC, it was still defense that defined this game Between the Hedges. While Georgia's momentum-fueled men--coached by Willie Martinez--held the Vols in check over the course of the first half, John Chavis' Tennessee defense made the huge plays that dug Phil Fulmer's team out of trouble.

In the first half, Georgia's offense played inspired ball, as the Dawgs rallied around third-generation UGA man Joe Tereshinski III. In a clear case of playing for a beloved on-field leader, Georgia's receivers--who had stunk up the joint throughout September--began October by stunning the Vols with way above average catches in traffic. Drop-prone pass catchers suddenly developed hands of stick'em, making bodily contortions and surviving bone-crushing hits while latching onto the pigskin... and keeping it. While Tennessee's secondary failed to make decisive reads on Tereshinski's passes, Georgia's receivers far exceeded any and all expectations. The result was a 17-point first-half output for a previously anemic Dawg offense (with the other seven points coming courtesy of a kick return). Down ten at halftime, the Vols knew that for all of Erik Ainge's skills under center, their defense would have to be the group to change the momentum of a game that had been colored Red and Black in the first 30 minutes.

It wouldn't take long for Chavis' Children of the Checkerboard to get the job done.

Coming out of the box in the second half, the Vols' defense--displaying the very instincts and ballhawking tendencies that were so manifestly absent in the first half--immediately turned Tereshinski's passes in a different direction. Balls that had landed in Georgia arms started getting deflected and landing in the breadbaskets of white-shirted jerseys. Two interceptions caused by the Vols' defense turned a 24-14 deficit into a 31-27 lead. And after the teams traded touchdowns on kicks--with Tennessee blocking a punt and Georgia returning the subsequent kickoff--Tennessee would later get another fumble recovery and cash that in for six more points to put the game away. A Volunteer defense that literally turned over a new leaf was able to deny Joe Tereshinski on a night when the opening day signal caller had ignited his offense upon returning to the Georgia lineup.

Aside of the big plays made by Tennessee's defense, however, it does need to be said that both offenses performed above expectations--with this many points scored, it wasn't just defensive playmaking that accounted for all the action. Tennessee's offensive line in particular was the other big story of this night.

The Vols' offense was able to turn Georgia mistakes into seven points with such regularity because Phil Fulmer's offensive front was so dominant once the Big Orange got its hands on the ball in the second half. The big uglies from Knoxville didn't let Georgia's defense (whose much-referenced scoring average took a huge hit in this contest) even breathe on Erik Ainge, who had a wall in front of him on seemingly every pass play. Given this abundance of time, Tennessee's talented receivers consistently ran in open space, and it was just a matter of when, not if, Ainge would hit them for first downs. This, more than anything else, is what enabled the Vols to calmly and coolly respond with a touchdown after Georgia had scored to narrow a 38-27 Tennessee lead down to 38-33. With Sanford Stadium jumping, Ainge and his rock-solid protectors managed to drive the dagger into Georgia's heart. A game consumed with big plays and influenced by defense was finally settled by Tennessee's frontline play and Erik Ainge's icy consistency.

The Vols will need help from Georgia if they are to win the SEC East, but that's a secondary concern for Phil Fulmer's team right now. After seeing his current crop of offensive linemen perform so well, Fulmer--an old offensive lineman himself--now knows that his program is back on solid, stable footing, especially on the point-scoring side of the ball. Tennessee showed it still belongs at the big boy table in college football; you belong there when you display your manhood on the road in the second half against a name program such as Georgia.

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