Dooley compared his team to bamboo, noting that you water it and water it and water it without seeing much result. Then, just as you're about to give up hope, it suddenly sprouts.
A full house of 102,455 fans hoped the youthful Vols might sprout against Georgia Saturday night at Neyland Stadium but it didn't happen. The ground game was a no-show – again – and this time Tyler Bray couldn't pick up the slack. The sophomore quarterback completed 18 of 33 passes for 251 yards but failed to get the Big Orange in the end zone, seeing his streak of multiple-touchdown games snapped at 10. The Vols' lone TD came with 2:45 left and backup Matt Simms at quarterback. Bray watched from the sidelines with a right thumb injury suffered with around 4:00 left.
Tennessee played an excellent first half and went to the break tied 6-6 before imploding at the start of the third quarter. A bad shotgun snap resulted in a 15-yard loss that forced Tennessee to punt from its 7-yard line. A poor punt by Matt Darr gave Georgia the ball at Tennessee's 38-yard line, and the Dawgs capitalized nine plays later for a 13-6 lead.
Tennessee appeared to retaliate on a 66-yard touchdown pass/run from Bray to No. 2 tailback Marlin Lane. A replay review showed Lane's knee was down 13 yards into the play, however, and the correction left the Vols facing fourth-and-3.
Tennessee still appeared to be in good shape, punting the ball to Georgia's 7-yard line. The Dawgs made the biggest play of the game at this point, however. Freshman Malcolm Mitchell got behind Marsalis Teague for a 71-yard catch/run to Tennessee's 22-yard line. Freshman Isaiah Crowell scored on a 17-yard run two plays later, bumping the lead to 20-6 with 4:51 left in the third quarter.
“We came out in the third quarter and had a little melt-down there for a couple of possessions,” Dooley said. “We snapped the ball over the quarterback's head, gave them good (field) position, and they drive it down and score. Then we back them up and we give up a big play over our heads and they score.”
With no semblance of a running game to keep Georgia's defense honest, Bray was throwing under pressure much of the night. Although sacked only once, he was hurried and forced to make off-balance throws until he went to the sidelines midway through Tennessee's final possession. Taking over at the Georgia 23-yard line, Simms completed 4 of 6 passes before scoring on a sneak to narrow the gap to 20-12. Michael Palardy's PAT was blocked, however, and his ensuing onsides kick went out of bounds before going the necessary 10 yards, sealing Tennessee's doom.
Rumors of a Vol running attack proved to be unfounded. First-team tailback Tauren Poole gained just 7 net yards on 7 carries before going to the sidelines with a pulled hamstring in the second quarter.
“When you lose your starting running back it hurts,” Dooley noted, “but he wasn't tearing it up anyway.”
Lane fared only slightly better, gaining 8 yards on 7 carries. Rajion Neal carried twice for 7 yards in the first quarter but fumbled each time and did not touch the ball again. Counting sacks, Tennessee finished with minus-20 yards on 23 official carries.
A bright spot was freshman return specialist Devin Young, who had a 50-yard kickoff runback and a 20-yard punt return. Asked if he might consider giving Young some snaps in the backfield, Dooley deadpanned, “We will consider giving anyone some reps in the backfield if they can generate some yards.”
The first half was a field-goal battle, with Georgia's Blair Walsh hitting a 35-yarder in the first quarter and a 23-yarder in the second. Palardy missed from 51, then hit from 28 and 43 yards – the latter coming on the final play of the half.
Dooley said the Vols played “a real good first half … going at it toe to toe” but thought his team misplaced its poise in the third quarter.
“We lost our composure a little bit,” he said. “We pressed, got anxious, frustrated, and that was disappointing.”
Tennessee limited Crowell to 58 rushing yards, barely half of his 103-per game average, and limited mobile QB Aaron Murray to 19 yards on six scrambles. Murray burned the Vols through the air, however, completing 15 of 25 throws for 227 yards.
“We did a good job against the running back; he averaged three yards a carry,” Dooley said. “We gave up one big (pass) play … but we are packing it in there trying to stop that (run) and they take a shot and we have to hold up.”
Georgia improves to 4-2 overall and 3-1 in SEC play.
Things get no easier for Tennessee, now 3-2 overall but 0-2 in SEC play. The Vols host top-ranked LSU and visit second-ranked Alabama the next two weeks.