ATHENS, Ga. — On a day Georgia honored its Olympians from this summer, a track meet broke out at Sanford Stadium.
The No. 5 Bulldogs scored their most points ever against Tennessee, but the Volunteers were nipping at their heels on a wild day in which Georgia rolled up 560 yards and Tennessee piled up 478.
When the highest-scoring game in the 42 meetings between the schools ended, the Bulldogs escaped September still undefeated after a 51-44 victory.
“Well, that was fun,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “I’m sure CBS enjoyed that. I’m sure the ratings were great.”
Georgia freshman tailbacks Keith Marshall and Todd Gurley combined for 294 rushing yards and five touchdowns, but the Bulldogs needed to hold on tight down the stretch when Tennessee turned the ball over three times in Georgia territory.
Cornerback Sanders Commings, a former Westside standout, snatched a Tyler Bray pass at the Georgia 36 and picked him off again with seven seconds to play.
“When it’s fourth quarter and the game is on the line, you just get a different mindset,” Commings said. “It’s like ‘I have to make these plays or my team will lose the game.’ That’s pretty much what went through my head.”
The Bulldogs (5-0, 3-0 Southeastern Conference) will head to No. 6 South Carolina on Saturday having won five in a row to open the season, but nearly kicked themselves where it hurts with a hobnailed boot.
Three of Tennessee’s touchdowns in the first half came after Georgia turnovers and the special teams were hard to stomach at times for Bulldogs fans.
Quarterback Aaron Murray had an interception returned for a touchdown by Byron Moore.
After Georgia opened a 27-10 lead, the Volunteers scored 20 in a row to pull ahead.
“We were a little sloppy in the first half giving away points,” said Murray, who was 19 of 25 for 278 yards with two TDs and the interception. “But this team, go back to the Missouri game, we’re a bunch of fighters.”
Bray threw touchdown passes of 4 yards to Zach Rogers (after a Murray fumble on a sack) and 10 yards to tailback Rajion Neal (after a Marshall fumble).
Tennessee only had to go 50 yards on a drive that ended with a 1-yard touchdown run on a direct snap from A.J. Johnson.
The Vols got excellent field position after Malcolm Mitchell let a low punt at about the 10-yard line roll to the 1 when it was downed. Mitchell was replaced by Rhett McGowan on the next punt.
Tennessee’s comeback was reminiscent of the 2006 game in Athens when the Volunteers rallied from down 17 to win 51-33.
Georgia needed a Marshall Morgan 50-yard field goal as time expired at halftime to tie the game at 30. Morgan ran to the sideline in jubilation giving the Bulldogs a much-needed shot in the arm.
Georgia scored touchdowns the first three times it had the ball in the third quarter to open a 51-37 lead.
Murray hit Michael Bennett on touchdown passes of eight and 32 yards.
Tennessee answered back when receiver Cordarrellee Patterson went 46 yards on a reverse.
Georgia answered back when Marshall (10 carries for career-high 164 yards) raced 72 yards for a touchdown to go along with a 75-yard score earlier.
“We didn’t hang our heads, we stayed aggressive and guys hung in there and played hard,” offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said.
Gurley rushed for 130 yards and three touchdowns on 24 carries.
Georgia scored 40 or more points for a record fifth consecutive game, but gave up its most points since a 45-42 loss to South Carolina on Sept. 10, 2011.
A Georgia defense that welcomed back linebacker Alec Ogletree (game-high 14 tackles) and safety Bacarri Rambo (nine) gave up 281 passing yards.
“This game reminds me a lot of the South Carolina game,” Grantham said. “The biggest difference to me is we showed mental toughness and we kept playing and we made plays in the fourth quarter when we had to.”
The seventh-highest non-overtime game in the SEC history will go down as another Georgia victory.
“We got to win the chapel bell,” Richt said, “so it was a good day between the hedges.”