Riley Ridley ran past Malik Foreman and gathered in Jacob Eason’s rainbow, the pot of gold in this case being pole position in the SEC East, and right then you thought: Justice has prevailed. Georgia scores with 10 seconds left to beat Tennessee, the Georgia that played — sorry to get visceral here — its guts out, the Georgia that maximized every resource against a superior opponent.
And then justice said, “Hah!”
The Georgia that should have won lost. It lost because of a celebration penalty after Ridley’s touchdown and because it was offside on the ensuing shortish “sky” kick. (Memo to Georgia coaches for all eternity: Never kick short inside the final 20 seconds.) It lost because Joshua Dobbs got to hurl his responding rainbow from midfield. It lost because it had six men near the ball as it descended, but the only hands that snatched it belonged to Jauan Jennings, who’s 6 feet 3.
Jennings stole a game and maybe a division title from Georgia. Tennessee stole a game in which it trailed 17-0 after 29 minutes, 24-14 after three quarters and 31-28 as the clock struck 0:00.
Final score: Tennessee 34, Georgia 31. “A great, great football game,” Tennessee coach Butch Jones said. Then this, of Dobbs-to-Jennings: “Kind of surreal. I could see the tight spiral, the good lift to it. I thought we had a chance. It’s one of those moments you’ll remember the rest of your life.”
Then this, of Jennings in particular: “He has a will to win. He was not going to be denied.”
Know this, though: Georgia didn’t lose because its will was weak. Seven days after getting boat-raced at Ole Miss, these Bulldogs played as hard as any Bulldogs ever. They forged that 17-point lead because they outfought Tennessee for every loose ball and one that wasn’t loose until DeAndre Baker blindsided Jalen Hurd as he was slowing his roll at the 1-yard line, two feet from the touchdown that would have brought the Volunteers within 10-7.
Georgia recovered the fumble, drove 80 yards and scored when Eason, who’s a skinny quarterback, dove after Sony Michel’s fumble in the other end zone. Right there you had your script: The team that was trying harder was halfway to a red-letter win.
Tennessee made its obligatory rally and forged ahead with 2:56 remaining on Corey Vereen’s recovery of Eason’s end-zone fumble. At 0:19, the Bulldogs were flagged for a false start. Kirby Smart had to call his final timeout to save the 10-second runoff.
Then Eason dropped to throw, the Eason who’d been under heavy pressure all day, whose fumble then stood as the difference, who’d followed the fumble with an interception. One last time, he delivered. Ridley scored. Georgia, surely, had won. But no.
“I am not into moral victories. I am sick to my stomach,” Smart said. “We deserved to win this game. But we didn’t because of undisciplined penalties.”
Of Jennings’ touchdown: “We practice (defending) that play all the time. We practiced it Thursday … But it doesn’t just come down to that play. The why is important.”
Meaning the two penalties. They were awful. Getting penalized twice in the final 10 seconds after you’ve seized the lead cannot happen. But those who worried that Georgia couldn’t stand in against the bigger and faster Vols saw those fears allayed. Georgia stood in and coulda/shoulda won. A big Vol trumped them at the end.
For Georgia to win the East without benefit of a crazy tiebreaker would mean Tennessee has to lose three times, and there aren’t three SEC losses on the Vols’ schedule. (Two, maybe.) But there wasn’t almost one here. Almost.
After finishing his briefing, Smart slid into a police car. He’d been 10 seconds from his own Hobnail Boot Moment, but the cruiser pulled away he covered his face with his right hand.