One-dimensional Georgia offense is lucky it has Todd Gurley

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Todd Gurley hurdles Tennessee defensive back Brian Randolph Saturday. (Brant Sanderlin / AJC)
Todd Gurley hurdles Tennessee defensive back Brian Randolph Saturday. (Brant Sanderlin / AJC)

Todd Gurley hurdles Tennessee defensive back Brian Randolph Saturday. (Brant Sanderlin / AJC)

It’s a good thing Todd Gurley has strong legs, because thanks to continued defensive problems against the pass and inferior quarterback play that made Georgia’s offense one-dimensional, the magnificent tailback had to carry his team to its squeaker victory over a young, modestly talented Tennessee team Saturday at Sanford Stadium.

The win but gave the Dogs five in a row over the Vols and evened the series at 21-21-2.

Gurley’s career-high 208 yards on 28 carries, resulting in two touchdowns (including one on a 51-yard run in the fourth quarter), was the most rushing yards by a Bulldog in a game since 1992, when Garrison Hearst tallied 246 versus Vanderbilt, and he was the first Georgia back to go over 200 yards since Verron Haynes went for 207 against Georgia Tech in 2001.

Gurley accounted for an incredible 285 all-purpose yards (which included catching four passes for 30 yards and 47 yards on two kickoff returns).

Mark Richt proved the master of understatement after the game when, declaring Gurley “the best player in America,” he added: “I can’t imagine … a guy who means more to his team than he does to us.”

The only negative in Gurley’s play Saturday was an unsportsmanlike-conduct flag he drew for spiking the ball at the end of his long touchdown scamper. That forced Georgia to kick off from its 20-yard line, allowing the Vols to get the ball at their 48 and score four plays later.

Still, the most impressive thing about Gurley’s performance Saturday is that it was against a defense that was consistently stacking eight or nine men in the box.

Hutson Mason did not have a good day passing against Tennessee. (Brant Sanderlin / AJC)

Hutson Mason did not have a good day passing against Tennessee. (Brant Sanderlin / AJC)

The Vols could do that because, frankly, they didn’t respect Georgia’s passing game. At all.

And didn’t need to, unfortunately.

Hutson Mason finished 16-for-25 for 147 yards, one touchdown and his first two interceptions of the season (both very poorly thrown), but his performance was much worse than the stats indicate. And it wasn’t all just because he was missing such talented receivers as Malcolm Mitchell and Justin Scott-Wesley. Michael Bennett and Chris Conley were available, but Mason rarely used them to any advantage.

As a result, the Vols held the Bulldogs to a dismal 1 of 10 on third-down conversions.

I don’t know whether Mason has some sort of arm fatigue or just wasn’t feeling it Saturday, but his passes had no zip and frequently were off-target. He also continued to show the downside of his first-year-starter status, locking in on well-covered receivers while ignoring others who were wide open, and tucking and running (mostly ineffectually) whenever his pocket threatened to collapse.

Don’t misunderstand: I’m not saying Georgia should have inserted strong-armed redshirt freshman Brice Ramsey into such a high-pressure situation to juice the passing game. That’s not how you want to work a new QB in. But perhaps Richt and offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Mike Bobo need to consider getting the younger QB some more playing time down the road, lest the Dogs come to rely strictly on their running game. Yes, Ramsey (who got in on only one play Saturday after Mason had lost his helmet) would be prone to freshman mistakes, but, let’s face it, despite being a fifth-year senior, so is Mason. And he’ll be gone after this year.

Georgia’s offensive woes weren’t all Mason’s fault, though. The OL derailed several drives with penalties. And Tennessee’s defense, led by the magnificent A.J. Johnson’s nine solo tackles and eight assists, played a pretty stout game.

Vols quarterback Justin Worley had success against Georgia when he wasn't pressured. (Brant Sanderlin / AJC)

Vols quarterback Justin Worley had success against Georgia when he wasn’t pressured. (Brant Sanderlin / AJC)

Otherwise, it was a mixed day for the Dogs. The defense at times looked as porous as against South Carolina, and yet held Tennessee scoreless in the third period (when Georgia also failed to score).

Defensively, it basically came down to this: Georgia was decent against the run, and was successful in defending the pass when the Dogs were able to get pressure on the Tennessee QB. (This was particularly the case with Vols backup Nathan Peterman, who had to play three series in the second half when starter Justin Worley was briefly knocked out of the game.) The Dogs generally did better when they blitzed. When Georgia didn’t get pressure, its inexperienced secondary got shredded by Worley.

One factor that worked in the Bulldogs’ favor (besides Gurley being in a red jersey) was that the two turnovers Georgia gave up to Tennessee resulted in no points, while the Dogs got 7 points out of their two fumble recoveries.

“We had two turnovers that could have turned into points, but they didn’t,” Richt said. “When you can stop the bleeding after turnovers, it’s huge. The defense did a great job of keeping those from becoming a bad situation.”

And the key play was made by the defense when, with 4:27 left in the game, junior DE Josh Dawson, who already had recovered a Tennessee fumble earlier that produced no points, jumped on a loose ball in the Vols end zone resulting from a bad exchange between Worley and running back Jalen Hurd.

That made the score 35-25, but Tennessee then raced down the field for a score that made it uncomfortably close at 35-32 with 2:14 left on the clock.

Georgia snagged the Vols’ onside kick, but UGA fans were stressing out over the possibility that the Dogs wouldn’t be able to kill the clock and Worley would get one more chance.

Thankfully, this time around Bobo knew what he had to do: keep feeding the ball to No. 3. Unfortunately, he kept using pretty much the same play, with diminishing returns, until finally switching to a toss sweep on fourth-and-3 after Georgia had let the clock run down to 40 seconds.

Gurley got the first down and Georgia got a win that was much closer than it should have been.

Feel free to share your own views of Saturday’s Georgia-Tennessee game.

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— Bill King, Junkyard Blawg

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