ATHENS, Ga. — To maintain a top-five ranking, somebody for Georgia was going to have to step up.
Sanders Commings did – twice.
Nursing a seven-point lead in a shootout with Tennessee, Commings made two interceptions as the Bulldogs forced three turnovers in the final 5:55 to preserve a 51-44 victory Saturday at Sanford Stadium.
“I just felt like my team needed a big play,” said Commings, the senior defensive back from Westside. “I said to myself if I get the opportunity I’m going try to make those plays. And fortunately I did.”
Commings stepped in front of receiver Cordarrelle Patterson to pick off Tennessee quarterback Tyler Bray with 5:55 remaining to halt the first threat. Then he made a diving catch of Bray’s final throw with seven seconds left to end the game.
It was a big night for a defensive back who had a reputation for dropping too many opportunities.
“He had a great game,” said defensive end Cornelius Washington, the former Burke County player who pressured Bray into overthrowing his mark to assist Commings’ last pick. “I’m very proud of him. We pick at him sometimes in practice about catching picks. I’m just so proud that he got two of them. Special night for him.”
Commings admits that changing the perception of him as a defensive playmaker played a role in his stepping up.
“Last year I dropped quite a few picks,” he said. “The guys teased me about it. In the off-season I made up my mind I wasn’t going to drop any more picks. Spent a lot of time on the jugs (machine). My hands definitely improved and it showed tonight.”
The turnovers couldn’t have come at a better time for the Bulldogs facing a bigger test than expected from the Volunteers. Three times Georgia opened leads of two touchdowns or more, but kept letting Tennessee back into the game.
“It’s nice to have a gut check and come out on top,” said Bulldogs head coach Mark Richt. “A lot of things in the first half deflated us. ... We rose to the occasion when we needed to. We kept them out of the end zone when we needed to. We got turnovers when we needed to. And we did what we had to do to win.”
Those 44 points on the scoreboard and the 478 yards of Tennessee offense weren’t the kind of numbers Georgia was expecting to see on the night it welcomed back the last missing pieces of its championship-caliber defense. Alec Ogletree and Bacarri Rambo returned after four-game suspensions and led the Bulldogs in tackles Saturday, but still a shootout ensued.
In fairness, Tennessee’s offense only had to move a combined 26 yards for three touchdowns in the first half off turnovers (an interception return touchdown and fumble recoveries at the Georgia 8 and 18). But three times trying to stave off Volunteer rallies from double-digit holes isn’t something the Bulldogs’ expected to struggle with until the last seconds.
“We knew they had the potential to make big plays and that most of their offense came from big plays,” said Washington. “We focused to try to stop that and tonight to be honest we didn’t do a very good job of it.”
The No. 5 Bulldogs went seven quarters from the second half against Florida Atlantic through the first quarter against the Vols where they started to look like the kind of team that could be dominant.
But some sloppy mistakes turned a 27-10 lead that was trending toward another rout into a 30-27 deficit and 30-minute dogfight.
The week before its massive Southeastern Conference divisional showdown with No. 6 South Carolina, Georgia was raising more questions than answers.
But the Bulldogs insisted that surviving a scare Saturday was the best thing for them heading into Columbia, S.C., next Saturday night.
“I think we needed that challenge just to find ourselves and some things we need to work on,” said Georgia linebacker Jarvis Jones. “It was huge just getting that last stop.”
The coaches shared that enthusiasm for the end result.
“It makes your heart hurt, but I kind of like when you have a little adversity in your team,” said offensive coordinator Mike Bobo, whose offense showed red-hot and cold flashes all night. “It shows what you’re made of.”
Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham insisted Saturday night showed something his team didn’t have in similar circumstances a year ago when it won the SEC East.
“Reminded me a lot of the South Carolina game last year,” Grantham said of a 45-42 loss at Sanford Stadium to the Gamecocks in the second game of the 2011 season. “The difference is we found a way to win. I’m fully aware of the issues we’ve got out there today and we’ll make sure we correct them.”
In the end, it’s the winning that matters. South Carolina had its own concerns after falling behind 17-7 through one half against a lesser Kentucky team on Saturday night, but the Gamecocks, too, found a way to overcome and set the stage for next week’s epic border class.
Commings’ heroics were a big part of keeping Georgia (5-0, 3-0 SEC) on the desired path.
“When you get your hands on the ball, you’ve got to make some plays,” said Grantham. “In the fourth quarter we made those catches. (Commings) found a way to make some plays. Proud of him and his efforts.”
“Crucial plays at crucial times that definitely changed the game,” Jones said of Commings’ picks as well and John Jenkins’ fumble recovery down the stretch.
“As it turned out, we needed all of them to come out with a win,” said Richt.
In a bottom line sport like football, that’s everything.