BULLDOGS-EXTRA

Five takeaways from No. 1 Georgia football's 41-17 win at Tennessee

Marc Weiszer
Athens Banner-Herald
Georgia running back James Cook (4) runs down the field during a football game against the Georgia Bulldogs at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tenn. on Saturday, Nov. 13, 2021.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Georgia football arrived to the second Saturday of November by steamrolling every opponent since all the way back on Labor Day weekend.

Things looked a bit different in the early going as Tennessee led into the second quarter before the nation's top defense adjusted to the Vols uptempo offense.

The Bulldogs added the Volunteers to the list of teams they've overwhelmed by taking control of the game and rolling to a 41-17 victory.

The No. 1 Bulldogs had a grand total of one true honest-to-goodness tough road environment — at Auburn in October — before walking into Neyland Stadium where a crowd of 100,074 awaited. Neutral site games in Charlotte (Clemson) and Jacksonville (Florida) and what felt like a home game (at Vanderbilt) were the only other games away.

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James Cook scored three touchdowns and Stetson Bennett passed for one and ran for another as the Bulldogs (10-0) completed its SEC schedule 8-0 for the first time in program history.

"We weathered the storm and at the end we kept chopping and you saw it at the end," Bennett said. “They came out and punched our defense in the face. …That’s just this team--resiliency.”

Kirby Smart won his fifth straight game against Tennessee as Bulldogs coach as Georgia won its14th straight game, now the nation’s longest streak. Smart never beat Tennessee in his five seasons with the program in the 1990s as a safety, but his teams have won by 41, 29 and 31 in his three games as coach here.

Here are five takeaways from the Georgia win:

Defense adjusts to Vols pace

Tennessee went up 7-0 and 10-7, getting a 9-yard touchdown pass from Hendon Hooker to Velus Jones Jr. and a 24-yard field goal as the Vols went 77 and 76 yards on the scoring drives.

Freshman Brock Vandagriff worked as the scout team quarterback this week to try to give Georgia’s defense a good taste of the fast tempo Tennessee brings.

The Bulldogs gave up 162 yards on 26 plays on the Vols’ first two series and then allowed just 22 yards on 15 plays the rest of the first half as Tennessee punted three times and cornerback Derion Kendrick picked off a poorly thrown pass from Hooker (24 of 37 for 244 yards with a TD and INT) to the outside.

The Volunteers were getting chunks of a yards off of receiver screens when it had the Bulldogs on their heels.

On the sideline, inside linebacker Nakobe Dean said players weren't down after the opening drive touchdown.

“It was always a shake back mentality," Dean said. "They got points but what are we going to do to get back? Coaches did a great job practicing fastball this week. This is what they do. They go fast. We had to get that first little bit out of our system.”

Georgia replaced nickel back Latavious Brini and moved safety Christopher Smith to that spot and Dan Jackson came in at Smith’s safety spot.

"Chris has some good man to man ability," Smart said. "We had to play a different style defense this week."

Georgia scored 34 straight points until backup quarterback Joe Milton threw a 12-yard touchdown to Cedric Tillman with 3:38 to go.

"We talked to our guys about taking their best shot," Smart said. "But we didn’t come up here to take shots, we came up here to throw them. And our offense came right back with a huge drive."

Tennessee (5-5, 3-4 SEC) became the first team to score more than 13 points against Georgia this season.

"I’m not happy about the (late) touchdown, but it was a great team win," Dean said. "I love how the guys fought.”

The Bulldogs entered leading the nation in scoring defense at 6.6 per game.

Bulldogs defense gets to Vols even with players going down

As Tennessee got in the red zone early in the third quarter, one of Georgia’s top defensive players, defensive tackle Jalen Carter, was out.

"He was sick," Smart said. "We had about five guys sick. Jalen didn’t feel well. We tried to IV him. He had over a 100 degree fever and we had to pull him at half because of his temperature."

That included tight end John Fitzpatrick.

Outside linebacker Nolan Smith left the game in the fourth quarter and went to the locker room with an apparent left arm injury. Smart said he didn't know the extent of Smith's injury.

Besides Carter, the Bulldogs had three other defensive linemen leave the game in the first half, but that may have been just because of the quick tempo of Tennessee’s offense.

Both Jordan Davis and Devonte Wyatt were attended to on the field and then walked off under their own power and returned later in the half. Wyatt again was shaken up twice in fourth quarter including with 26 seconds to play.

“I know one time I went out there and Devonte sprained his knee, he thought," Smart said. "One time another guy got hit in the ribs. But I’ll check with Ron (Courson) and see. Hopefully those guys are okay.”

Defensive lineman Zion Logue also was down and then up and to the sideline early in the fourth quarter.

Outside linebacker Robert Beal also left the game in the first half but returned to make a sack at the end of the half.

All of that revolving door of defensive linemen didn’t stop Georgia’s defense from sacking Tennessee six times. The Volunteers had surrendered 33 sacks — most in the SEC entering.

Channing Tindall had three sacks in the second half--including two on one Tennessee drive in the third quarter.

Dean and Beal also had sacks and Chaz Chambliss and Warren Brisnon had a half each.

Big game for James Cook

James Cook had Georgia’s longest running play and longest pass reception in the first half.

Cook had eight touches in all in the first two quarters, rushing for 78 yards on 6 carries including a 39-yard touchdown for Georgia’s first points of the game and then hauled in a 23-yard touchdown with 37 seconds left in the first half. 

The senior from Miami lined up outside at receiver, giving the Bulldogs a five-wide look, and beat linebacker Solon Page on the touchdown.

“I know how versatile he is and what type of mismatch he can be even for DBs," Dean said.

Cook tied his career-high with 104 rushing yards on 10 carries.

"Thank goodness he broke a 100," Bennett said. "He was due for that kind of game. He leads this team, works hard and is explosive. He has a knack for finding space. I love seeing him doing it."

Cook, running out of the I-formation, took a pitch to the outside and scored on a 5-yard touchdown to make it 34-10 in the fourth quarter.

Cook also had 104 yards last year at South Carolina.

He had 3 catches for 43 yards Saturday.

"James, man, you talk about a guy who wills himself to win," Smart said. "I mean this guy wants to win bad. He doesn't care what it takes. He'll do anything you ask. He went out and played on a punt team he hasn't played on in a couple of weeks."

Stetson Bennett airs it out

Bennett had a season high in completions and pass attempts in his seventh start of the season.

He was 17 of 29 for 213 yards with a touchdown and no interceptions. He had thrown more than 20 passes in a game this season just once and that was 21 against Auburn.

Bennett also rushed for 40 yards on 8 carries including a 9-yard second quarter touchdown. Bennett dropped back and made a fake and then was off running up the middle, going by four defenders on a play he cut back to the right to finish off the run.

"The play he made on the touchdown run was special," Smart said. "I thought it was a decision, he made it and he stuck it. He made some plays with his feet. He made some plays with his arm."

Said Bennett: "The play for me is to roll out and continue outside. The defense flowed…I just stopped and cut up underneath the defensive end and saw green grass and just ran.”

Bennett had a terrific fake that had Tennessee's defense fooled that went for 10 yards and also added a 13-yard run.

Xavier Truss replaced Warren Ericson on Georgia’s third offensive series at right guard. Smart said Ericson was battling the flu.

Bennett was sacked twice including on third down on the opening possession of the second half when he may have held onto the ball too long.

"They mixed in their coverages," he said. "They did a lot of different stuff. They played some trap, some man, some cover 3. They brought a lot of pressure. ...They kept my mind busy.”

Bennett’s grandfather, Buddy Bennett, was a defensive backs coach at Tennessee in 1970.

Bulldogs join pretty good company

Georgia completed its first unbeaten SEC season since 1982 when it went 6-0. It’s the eighth time in program history a team has completed league play undefeated.

"It makes no guarantees for what’s going to happen in the future," Smart said. "We’ve got a lot of guys that we’ve got to try and get better and improve. We’ve got to tackle better. There’s a lot of things that we can work on to get better." 

The last two SEC teams to go through their conference slate unscathed: Alabama in 2020 (10-0) and LSU in 2019 (8-0). Each won national titles.

Georgia became the 16th SEC team to go unbeaten in league play since the conference went to divisions in 1992. The others: Alabama (1992), Alabama (1994), Florida (1995), Florida (1996), Tennessee (1998), Auburn (2004), Alabama (2008), Florida and Alabama (2009), Auburn (2010), LSU (2011), Alabama (2016), Alabama (2018).

Georgia won its 14th straight game, now the longest streak in the country after Oklahoma’s 17-game winning streak ended with a loss to Baylor Saturday. Cincinnati’s 10-game winning streak is second behind Georgia.