ATHENS, Ga. — Move over, Tennessee Hail Mary – Georgia on Saturday walked into a homecoming humbling by Vanderbilt.
The Bulldogs are certainly making it hard on the home fans.
In the first game between the hedges since a last-gasp defeat to a top 15 Volunteers team two weeks earlier, the Bulldogs went tumbling down again to 14-point underdog Vanderbilt 17-16 in Sanford Stadium.
Georgia lost at home to the Commodores for the first time since 2006 and for just the third time overall in the past 22 games against them.
“To me, it’s very disappointing. It’s not acceptable,” first-year head coach Kirby Smart said when asked at the end of his postgame press conference about how he would react to a “sky is falling mentality” that comes with losing to Vanderbilt.
“I’m upset about it. I think the best thing you do is you go to work. It’s the only thing we can do as a team is look ourselves in the mirror, each individual guy starting with me. What can I do better to help this team? We have to improve. We have to get better.”
Georgia (4-3, 2-3 Southeastern Conference) heads into an open date losers of three of its past four games before playing Florida on Oct. 29. The Bulldogs already have as many losses midway through October as they had each of the past two seasons.
“It hurts, it hurts bad,” said tailback Nick Chubb said of the locker room vibe.
Vanderbilt defenders ran across the field to celebrate after they knew they had sealed the deal when a measurement showed that wide receiver Isaiah McKenzie was stopped for no gain at the Commodore 41 on fourth-and-1 with 56 seconds left.
Georgia outgained Vanderbilt 421-171, but couldn’t get the one yard on offense it most needed.
McKenzie lined up as a tailback with Chubb the fullback in an I-formation and took a toss sweep right. Vanderbilt linebacker Zach Cunningham stood up over center but ran to his left and grabbed McKenzie around the waist and made the tackle, the last of his career-high 19 in the game.
It was the same play Georgia was set to run before Vanderbilt called timeout.
“We were confident in ourselves, it was just one yard, but were unable to get it,” Chubb said.
Coaches reconsidered the play during the timeout, Smart said, but the Commodores had used the same stunt successfully at least twice earlier to snuff out the inside zone play, and Vanderbilt came out of the timeout showing the stunt again to plug the middle.
“We really thought we had the exact defense we wanted,” said Smart, who also weighed running a play for Chubb who was held to 40 yards on 16 carries. “We were ready to call timeout if we didn’t and felt really good about it. We had numbers and everything to get the first down but the guy came off his block.”
McKenzie said he was thinking “just get one yard, get one yard, but there was a man that came backside and just tackled me.”
He added: “We were hoping that the play worked and felt good about the play and ran it. They just made a good play on it.”
Vanderbilt (3-4, 1-3) won its first SEC road game in 10 tries under third-year coach Derek Mason.
“I told our young men this morning that if we wanted to do something epic, we needed to make sure we took the fight to them,” Mason said.
For the second home game in a row, the visiting team celebrated afterwards in the corner of the stadium waving a flag.
Georgia special teams breakdowns at the start of each half proved to be killers.
The Bulldogs trailed 7-6 at halftime mainly because the Commodores punched in an early touchdown after taking the opening kickoff 95 yards. Reggie Davis dragged down Darrius Sims at the 4, but Ralph Webb’s 1-yard touchdown put the Commodores ahead 7-0 only 22 seconds into the game.
Smart said “we didn’t come out with very good passion and energy. I was really disappointed in the start of the game and kind of lost momentum for the whole half from there.”
Vanderbilt got another score, a 38-yard field goal from Tommy Openshaw, after Davis fielded a kickoff near the sideline and stepped out of bounds at the Georgia 3 on the first play of the third quarter.
“A comedy of errors,” Smart called the special teams’ miscues.
The Bulldogs went three-and-out and the Commodores got the three points for a 10-6 lead with 12:26 left in the third quarter.
A couple of Jacob Eason (27 of 40 for career-high 346 yards and a TD) to Isaac Nauta passes helped put Georgia ahead for the first time with 9:46 left in the third quarter. Eason hit the freshman tight end on a back shoulder pass for 18 yards and then connected with him on a 17-yard touchdown pass on a corner route for a 13-10 lead and extended the lead to six on Rodrigo Blankenship’s 36-yard field goal, his third of the game.
Vanderbilt drove 75 yards to go ahead on a two-yard Khari Blasingame touchdown run with 9:43 to play. The Commodores had just 85 yards of total offense before the drive, but got a 37-yard screen pass to Ralph Webb on third-and-11 during the drive. Smart said Georgia expected a screen but the defender “got lost in the shuffle,” and it swung the momentum Vanderbilt’s way.
“To be honest, they should not have gotten 100 yards of total offense against us against our defense,” Smart said. “We’ve got a better defense than they do an offense and we didn’t do it.”
Georgia was held to 75 rushing yards on 35 carries. Smart called his team “inept in the running game,” against another bigger, physical front.
The Bulldogs – and the fans – will have two weeks to let this loss marinate, the first homecoming loss in 10 years.
“There’s nothing we can do about it,” McKenzie said. “They came out and competed. They won the game and did the best job they can do. Now we’ve got to go back to practice, do our job and play the best Georgia football we can play.”