After marching down the field on its first and only overtime possession, Tennessee lost the ball and ultimately the game on a costly fumble that led to a touchback. The play was initially ruled a touchdown on the field, but an official review marked the ball as lost before Howard reached the end zone. Georgia defensive end Ray Drew only needed one extra look at the play.
“Whenever that replay was up I actually said it before they reviewed it,” Drew said. “When the video confirmed it, it was like a big weight was lifted off our shoulders.”
It had been a long second half for the defense. After allowing 127 total yards of offense from the Vols in the first half, Georgia allowed Tennessee to get back in the game and gain the lead in the final minutes. A touchdown pass from quarterback Aaron Murray forced overtime, but the fumble paved the way for a 34-31 Georgia victory.
“It’s hard to explain. There are certain things in college football that you can’t put into words,” Drew said. “A play like that was so defining in such a major game like this. It was awesome.”
While Drew had a clear view of the fumble, some of his teammates were blocked out.
Linebacker Jordan Jenkins thought the defense had conceded six before seeing the instant replay.
“All I saw was him (Howard) dive,” Jenkins said. “I thought he scored. I didn’t even know he dropped the ball. I just thought he was out of bounds before he dove, but after I saw it on film I was overjoyed.”
Upon getting possession of the ball, Georgia was calm and conservative with it to start its overtime drive.
“I wanted to advance the ball as best we could without getting too crazy,” Mark Richt said. “We knew we were in field goal range immediately. We tried to get it closer and couldn’t get it closer.”
That strategy paid off with a 42-yard field goal from Marshall Morgan to seal the win, which Jenkins was confident would happen well before the Tennessee turnover.
“I just kept thinking of all the little motivational videos we watch,” Jenkins said. “Georgia never quits. Georgia always finds a way to win and that’s what we did today with Marshall Morgan and that definitely helped us.”
Morgan’s field goal was clearly important enough to finish off Georgia’s win over conference foe Tennessee. However, that kick wouldn’t have had such high implications without Howard’s fumble.
“That definitely fueled everybody; you could see on the field,” Jenkins said. “That was a pivotal moment in the game, and it was the most emotional point in the game besides Marshall kicking that game-winning field goal.”
While the entire team was in need of a spark as overtime began, Georgia’s defense needed it more than most. The Dawgs were short a few players such as Tray Matthews and Connor Norman due to injuries sustained in the days leading up to the game. On top of that, it was overtime and fatigue was starting to set in.
“When it comes down to crunch time that’s when it’s got to be right,” Chris Conley said. “We had a lot of guys who were tired and a lot of guys who were out. We practice situations like that so you can be ready when the time comes and I think the guys did a great job of handling that pressure and executing when we needed to.”
One younger player who stepped up in that moment was freshman cornerback Shaq Wiggins. The first-year defensive back came to Georgia from Sandy Creek High School, and high school football wins rarely, if ever hold a candle to winning at Neyland Stadium.
“I had a moment like this in Sandy Creek my junior year when I scored a winning touchdown, but this was big,” Wiggins said.
The fumble that led to Morgan’s eventual field goal was never questioned by the defense. It knew Georgia would get the ball back, Wiggins said.
“Amarlo [Herrera] was the first to recognize it, and I already knew the ball had left his hand before he crossed the pylon,” Wiggins said. “He [Herrera] was all in the ref’s face. That was probably the best play of the game.”