In No. 5 Georgia’s 51-44 victory over Tennessee Saturday, the Bulldogs provided more than enough fodder for those who enjoy spleen venting about special teams.
The Bulldogs’ laundry list of special-teams miscues was fairly comprehensive and nearly fatal. Missed extra-point attempts and bad decisions and execution on punt and kick returns, particularly in the second quarter, turned a potential sleeper of a Southeastern Conference game into a battle that raged well into the final few minutes of play.
Georgia also lost two fumbles in that forgettable second quarter, which allowed the underdog Volunteers score 20 unanswered points in a five-minute span. But make no mistake about it – the less-than-special play by the special teams provided the fuel that could have burned Sanford Stadium to the ground.
“We just need to play smarter – that’s all there is to it,” said Malcolm Mitchell. “There’s no one situation we couldn’t control. We just have to think before we do something.”
The eve of near-destruction began early in the second quarter when place-kicker Marshall Morgan clipped the uprights on an extra-point attempt after a breathtaking 51-yard run by Todd Gurley that put Georgia up 27-10.
“With each kick, you’ve got to forget about the last one and look to the next one,” said Morgan, a freshman who also had an extra-point try blocked in the third quarter. “I just try to kick each one down the middle and whatever happens, happens.”
Two minutes later, after the Bulldogs defense forced a Tennessee punt, Mitchell let the kick roll to the Georgia 1-yard line, a hole the offense just barely was able to dig out of with a Collin Barber punt to the 50. Twelve plays later, the Volunteers had another touchdown and trailed 27-17.
Mitchell’s decision on that punt may have signaled the end of his brief career as a returner.
“Malcolm certainly could have come up on that one punt and just called a fair catch, But he let it hit and he let it roll and, before you know it, it’s on the 1-yard line,” said Georgia coach Mark Richt. “That’s tough. So we put Rhett McGowan in there and as far as I’m concerned, Rhett’s the guy.”
Thanks to an Aaron Murray fumble recovered by Tennessee’s A.J. Johnson, Tennessee quickly made it 27-23 (Derrick Brodus missed the extra point, perhaps in tribute to the Bulldogs’ difficulties) and the subsequent kickoff was mishandled by Gurley (who returned a kick 100 yards for a touchdown against Buffalo) at the Georgia 1-yard line.
After a Keith Marshall fumble on the Bulldogs 18-yard line, the Volunteers needed but four plays to take a 30-27 lead with less than a minute remaining in the half.
Amid the miscues, there were several special-teams triumphs, including Morgan’s 50-yard field goal as time expired in the first half, a blocked punt by Mark Deas in the third quarter (Georgia’s second blocked punt of the year) and a successful 2-point conversion attempt with three minutes left in the third quarter that put the Bulldogs up 51-37.
“There were some good things that happened,” said Richt. “We blocked another punt, which was a huge part of the game. Obviously, we mishandled the one kickoff, but it was kind of a weird kick – it was like a knuckleball and a tough one to decide what to do on it. Sometimes when you have a freshman back there, those things happen.”
“We have a good special teams unit and we have more experience that last year, so (the blocked punt) was something we knew was going to happen,” added Deas. “We have the players to make the plays on every aspect of special teams, so I’m glad I was able to step up and make a play.”
Although the special-teams mistakes are at times an aggravating situation for the Bulldog faithful, players again and again returned to the mantra that each error is correctable.
“There’s lot of stuff we can work on but we did have the blocked punt and the long field goal,” said Morgan. “Everything that happened tonight we can fix. We’ve just got to fix what’s going wrong.”
“It’s disappointing, but we just have to see what we’re doing wrong and make adjustments,” added Deas. “As long as we come out with a win, we’ll just move forward.”
“A couple of plays stunk, but our guys were able to fight through the adversity,” said Murray, who completed 19 of 25 passes for 278 yards, two touchdowns and an interception returned by Tennessee’s Byron Moore for a 35-yard touchdown. “I know our guys will be working hard to make sure all the little things we missed in all three phases of the game will be cleaned up and ready to go.”