Tennessee could not have asked for a better start against the third-ranked team in the country with a true freshman quarterback making his first ever start.
The Vols (1-4, 0-2 SEC) matched the favored Georgia Bulldogs (5-0, 2-0 SEC) step for step for most of the first half at Neyland Stadium on Saturday night, behind an impressive showing from quarterback Brian Maurer.
Late in the first half, however, Georgia did what they do best, flexing their strength through their run and pass game and scoring twice to take a lead that they never looked back on in a 43-14 decision.
Based on what the Tennessee program had experienced in the last few weeks, there were some positive takeaways, despite the loss. A bye week couldn’t exactly cure the same problems that have persisted all season, but Georgia was just better.
Here are the takeaways:
Maurer gets his hour
Just hours before the Vols were to take on Georgia, Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt announced that Brian Maurer would get his first career start after a position battle with redshirt junior Jarrett Guarnatano.
The performance was impressive.
There were, as expected, mistakes made, but the stage didn’t seem too big for Maurer in the first half.
In fact, his first-ever career reception came on the Vols’ second drive of the game, a 73-yard toss to Marquez Callaway to tie the game, 7-7.
Maurer threw for another score and 259 yards in the losing effort-solid numbers for a player who was seeing his first significant action.
“I thought Brian (Maurer) did a really good job in the first half,” Pruitt said. “I thought (the offensive line) did a nice job of protecting him. For awhile there it was a good back and forth.”
The youth showed in the second half, as Maurer completed just one pass in the entire third quarter and was sacked twice.
Despite that, Pruitt was overall impressed with Maurer’s performance.
“(Maurer) stood in their and made some throws down the field,” Pruitt said. “He kind of went through his progressions. He kept his eyes down field and made some nice throws and it enabled us to create some explosive plays.”
Georgia rushing and passing attack too much
Georgia’s leading rusher tallied 88 yards and Tennessee’s defense
“Defensively, we couldn’t get them stopped,” Pruitt said. “Some of that was Georgia and some of that was us. One of the first things you have to do to be a good defensive team is you have to make the other team earn it. Some times tonight we didn’t make them earn it.”
In the second half, Pruitt felt that the defense was able to contain the Bulldogs’ ground game better than they did in the first.
“In the second half, I felt like we didn’t give up as many (big) plays,” Pruitt said. “For a long time there, we’re down 12, then we’re down 15 points. I think there were three opportunities for our offense to cut into that and we just didn’t capitalize.”
Through the air, Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm racked up nearly 300 yards and two touchdowns.
The Vols had no answer in slowing down Fromm’s arm, which proved deadly at a point in the game where Tennessee was able to keep things close.
“This is the third time I’ve coached against Jake Fromm,” Pruitt said. “It’s hard to fool him. I thought we did a nice job of mixing it up. Normally, he keeps the clock in his head...sometimes when you’re playing a guy like that, you have to call the game backwards to give yourself an opportunity.”
Coming into their fifth game of the season, it was clear that Tennessee strongest suit was their special teams, particularly the kicking game.
Place kicker Brent Cimaglia was a perfect 9 for 9 before Saturday, but failed to connect on a 47-yard try in the second quarter that would have pulled the Vols within three.
Punter Joe Doyle, who was averaging more than 40-yards per punt also struggled on the night with a couple of punts that set Georgia’s offense up with good starting field position.
On a night where Tennessee’s offense played well, it was surprising to see them struggle kicking the ball.
In the return game, the Vols weren’t able to snag any momentum, which can be a credit to Georgia’s own kicking game. Tennessee wasn’t able to return the ball in any of the Bulldogs’ punts or kickoffs.
Tennessee will look for their first win in SEC play when they host Mississippi State (2-3, 1-1 SEC) at Neyland Stadium next Saturday.
The meeting will mark the first time since 2012 that the two programs have met, with the Bulldogs winning that game, 41-31 in Starkville.
Mississippi State is coming off of a 56-23 loss to No. 7 Auburn in their last outing, but had a bye week before coming to Knoxville.
Kickoff is slated for noon.