When the game was on the line, Georgia made the plays. Even on defense.
Todd Gurley ran for three touchdowns and another freshman, Keith Marshall, added two as No. 5 Georgia recovered after blowing a 17-point lead to beat Tennessee 51-44 on Saturday in the highest-scoring game ever between the SEC rivals.
Georgia (5-0, 3-0 SEC), which had never scored more points against the Volunteers in 41 previous meetings, needed three takeaways in the final 6 minutes stay unbeaten. Twice, Sanders Commings intercepted Tyler Bray’s passes, and in between, the Tennessee quarterback was stripped from behind and the fumble was recovered by Georgia’s John Jenkins.
“You can get into statistics, but the bottom line is a lot of games are going to come down to the end where somebody has to make a play,” Richt said.
“It’s nice to have a gut-check and come out on top.”
The Bulldogs’ defensive plays in the closing minutes followed a game packed with offense.
The previous high for points in the series was 84 in Tennessee’s 51-33 win in 2006. On Saturday, the teams combined for 60 points in just the first half.
Georgia had 282 yards rushing as its two freshmen each topped 100 yards. With former Georgia standout Herschel Walker watching, Gurley had 24 carries for 130 yards. Marshall had 164 yards on only 10 carries.
Asked if he anticipated the high-scoring pace, Gurley said “Probably not.”
“We know what we’re capable of,” said Gurley, who has rushed for more than 100 yards in four of his first five games. “We did our thing. We executed.”
Aaron Murray threw two third-quarter touchdown passes to Michael Bennett for the Bulldogs.
Georgia led 27-10 early in the second quarter before Tennessee took the lead with 20 unanswered points.
Tennessee (3-2, 0-2 SEC) took its third straight loss in the series under coach Derek Dooley, the son of Georgia’s former longtime coach Vince Dooley.
“We are better in a lot of areas, but we have to shore up the run defense,” Derek Dooley said. “Georgia is a great running team but we are a lot better than what we showed out there (Saturday). It was frustrating.”
Georgia plays at No. 6 South Carolina next week in a key SEC East game.
“We’ve been able to overcome the adversity we’ve had to this point,” Richt said. “The rest of the season hasn’t been a whole lot of drama, but I’m sure there will be drama next week.”
Bray moved the Vols inside the Georgia 35 late in the game before he fumbled when hit by linebacker Jordan Jenkins. John Jenkins recovered with 1:22 remaining.
Bray had one more long-shot chance when the Vols took possession with 15 seconds remaining. Commings’ interception on first down ended the game.
“Through all the disappointment, I think the team grew a lot,” said Tennessee tight end Mychal Rivera, who had three catches for 82 yards.
Bray completed 24 of 45 passes for 281 yards with two touchdowns and three interceptions. Rajion Neal had 104 yards rushing with a touchdown and also caught a touchdown pass.
Murray completed 19 of 25 for 278 yards with two touchdowns and one interception. Murray also lost a fumble.
Entering the day, Tennessee had its most total yards through four games in school history, and Bray’s 12 touchdown passes tied for the NCAA lead.
The Vols had 478 yards against Georgia.
Georgia, meanwhile, led the SEC with its average of 47.5 points after topping 40 points in its first four games for the first time in school history.
Following a 30-30 first half, Murray threw third-quarter touchdown passes of 8 and 32 yards to Bennett.
The game was a special teams mess for both sides.
There were three missed extra points, including two by Georgia. The Bulldogs blocked a punt and Tennessee’s Derrick Brodus missed a 28-yard field goal.
The Vols’ only touchdown in the first quarter came on Byron Moore’s 35-yard interception return.
Tennessee capitalized on lost fumbles by Murray and Marshall and other mistakes for 20 unanswered points to take the lead.
Georgia’s unraveling began when Malcolm Mitchell allowed a punt by Matt Darr to roll to the Bulldogs’ 1. Georgia punted after three conservative running plays, setting up A.J. Johnson’s 1-yard touchdown run from the Vols’ “Beast” Wildcat formation.
On Georgia’s second play, Murray fumbled when hit by blitzing linebacker Herman Lathers. Johnson recovered at the Georgia 8. On third down from the 4, Bray passed to Zach Rogers for a touchdown.
The deluge of mistakes continued for Georgia when Gurley caught the kickoff and stepped out of bounds at the 1. Four plays later, Marshall fumbled when hit by Curt Maggitt. Defensive end Darrington Sentimore recovered at the Georgia 18.
A facemask penalty on Georgia’s Kwame Geathers helped pave the way for Neal’s 10-yard touchdown pass from Bray for a 30-27 lead.
“I’ve always believed that this team has some fight in them,” Dooley said. “We just had to go out there and prove it. We got hit by a freight train early in the game, but we were able to fight back and get back into it. We went toe to toe with a top 10 team that will be competing for a national championship.”
Georgia All-America safety Bacarri Rambo and linebacker Alec Ogletree returned from four-game suspensions. Ogletree led Georgia with 14 tackles.
Mitchell, who started at cornerback in his first three games, started at wide receiver and had four catches for 31 yards.