The Georgia defense, which had allowed one touchdown and three field goals through two games this season, faced its first big dose of adversity on Saturday afternoon at Sanford Stadium. If the third-ranked Bulldogs were going to knock off No. 14 Tennessee, which was putting up a good fight, that vaunted Georgia defense had to tighten things up a bit in the second half.
It very, very much did.
Georgia linebacker Monty Rice, who forced a fourth-quarter fumble and returned it 20 yards for a touchdown, produced more points than the Volunteers did in the second half. Led by the defense’s second-half shutout, the Bulldogs won going away Saturday, 44-17.
“We might just have the best Defense in college football right now…” — Former Georgia receiver Tavarres King tweeted late in the first quarter Saturday.
And here’s what former offensive lineman George Foster tweeted: “Dude, this defense is primed to be the best that has come through the school. Straight up DAWGS on every level(.)”
It would be hard to argue with that through three games.
The Tennessee offense was under siege in the second half, gaining just 14 yards in the third quarter as the Bulldog defense came at it from all sides. Georgia forced three second-half takeaways, which helped turn a four-point halftime deficit into a lopsided victory.
Rice led Georgia with eight tackles, including two for loss, and got the cherry on top with the strip and score for the game’s final touchdown. Linebacker Azeez Ojulari was also a menace, making five stops with two sacks and two forced fumbles. Nine different Bulldogs had at least three tackles, including linebacker Channing Tindall, who also had a pair of sacks.
The Vols led 21-17 at halftime after their defense opened the game by scoring a touchdown after recovering a bad Bulldog snap in the end zone, and then the defense ended the half by stuffing Georgia on four straight runs inside the 5-yard line.
Having beaten the Bulldog defense on touchdown passes of 36 and 27 yards in the second quarter, and then stopped Georgia inches from the goal line, Tennessee ran off Dooley Field and into halftime with loads of confidence and momentum.
It didn’t last.
The Georgia defense answered right away to start the third quarter, with Ojulari sacking Vols quarterback Jarrett Guarantano, stripping the ball and recovering it at the UT 15. All the Bulldogs could get out of the opportunity was a field goal, cutting the Vols’ lead to 21-20.
“It was pretty big, man!” Ojulari said of his sack and strip. “We needed that coming back from halftime. We definitely needed that switch in momentum in the game. We put the offense in great field position to get some points on the board. It was a big moment. It was great.”
On the next UT offensive series, with the Vols facing a third-and-1 at their 32, defensive back Tyrique Stevenson forced a bad throw with a blitz, and cornerback Eric Stokes picked off the pass for his second interception of the season.
Georgia’s offense again had to settle for a field-goal attempt, this one from 51 yards, and Jack Podlesny’s boot was true, giving the Bulldogs a 23-21 lead with 10:11 left in the third. The momentum had swung Georgia’s way for good.
By the end of the third quarter, after a Kearis Jackson 21-yard touchdown catch from Stetson Bennett, Georgia had a 30-21 lead that felt like even more given how the defense had shut down the Volunteers, who managed just 14 yards of offense in the third quarter.
At halftime, Tennessee had 143 total yards of offense, highlighted by the two long passing touchdowns, The Volunteers finished the game with 214 yards of offense — managing only 71 yards and five first downs in the second half — and because of the yardage lost on Georgia’s 5.0 sacks, Tennessee had minus-1 yards rushing on 27 attempts.
“We gave up some explosive plays on defense, but the positives were we didn’t blink,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said.
Georgia’s defense got off to a slightly shaky start this season, at Arkansas, when midway through the first quarter of the opener the Hogs took advantage of a defensive lapse and scored on a 49-yard touchdown pass. The Razorback offense was stuck in the mud the rest of the game, getting only a 25-yard field goal in the final three-plus quarters of Georgia’s 37-10 win.
Arkansas finished with 77 rushing yards and 203 passing, with almost a quarter of those yards through the air coming on Georgia’s blown coverage. Stokes also contributed to the Bulldogs’ cause with a pick-six that helped fuel the Georgia surge after trailing 7-5 at the half.
A week later, when Auburn came to Athens for the Bulldogs’ home opener, bringing with it a more heralded and imaginative offense, Georgia kept the Tigers out of the end zone and rolled in a 27-6 win. The defense stuffed Auburn at nearly every turn, holding the Tigers to 39 yards rushing on 22 attempts — a 1.8 average — and limiting the passing attack to only 177 yards on 21 completions in 40 attempts.
Statistics don’t necessarily mean a ton after two games, but the Bulldog defense came into Saturday holding its opponents to an anemic 3.84 yards per play and only 248 yards per game, with offenses converting on third down 31% of the time in 29 attempts.
Against the Vols, Georgia’s defense allowed just 3.4 yards per play, and the Vols were 4 of 17 on third down.
“We feed off of each other’s energy, definitely,” Ojulari said. “Once anyone makes a big play it boosts the other teammates and all of our players. It gets everyone going — everyone is hype and ready to go out there and execute. It’s huge to go big play after big play after big play.”
For defensive linemen Jordan Davis and Jalen Carter, two mountainous men at a combined weight of 625 pounds, the fun didn’t stop on defense. As they have before this season, they lined up with the offense in goal-line situations. And Carter, the 6-foot-3 and 305-pound freshman, scored on a 1-yard touchdown pass in the right side of the end zone early in the fourth quarter.
This is an athletic, agile and deep defense that is attacking the quarterback, attacking the ball and causing opposing offenses all kinds of problems. It’s a joy to watch, but probably not much fun to play against.
“They hit you on all cylinders,” Tennessee wide receiver Josh Palmer said. “They just came out better in the second half. They just took over,”