ATHENS, Ga. -- Georgia’s special-teams units continued to both giveth and taketh away against Tennessee on Saturday.
A pair of botched kick returns directly contributed to the Bulldogs’ second-quarter meltdown -- when they let a 27-10 lead evaporate into a 30-27 deficit – as returners Todd Gurley and Malcolm Mitchell both made mistakes that forced Georgia to start drives at its own 1-yard line.
Plus, Georgia kicker Marshall Morgan missed two extra points, banking one off the left upright and getting another one blocked.
“It’s a little bit of a comedy of errors,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said of the Bulldogs’ struggles in the kicking game.
Mitchell failed to field a punt well away from the goal line and it rolled dead at Georgia’s 1, forcing an eventual Bulldogs punt that gave Tennessee great field position for its first touchdown drive.
That, plus a couple of similar poor decisions in previous games, has cost Mitchell the punt-return job for the time being.
“Malcolm certainly in my opinion could have come up on the one punt and just caught it, fair-catched it, but he let it hit and then he let it roll and before you know it, it’s on the 1-yard line,” Richt said.
“That’s tough. That’s a bad field-position situation, so we put Rhett McGowan in there. And as far as I’m concerned, Rhett’s the guy and I need him to make good decisions and come up and make the fair catch.”
After the Volunteers cut Georgia’s lead to 27-23, Gurley dribbled the kickoff near the corner of the end zone, stumbled out of bounds, then came back inbounds and touched the ball at the 1 to make it a dead ball. Four plays later, Keith Marshall fumbled at the Georgia 18, setting up another short touchdown drive that put the Vols up 30-27.
“Obviously we mishandled the one kickoff, but it was kind of a weird kick,” Richt said. “It was like a knuckleballer out there.”
It was not a completely disastrous day for Georgia’s special teams, however.
Morgan delivered possibly the biggest momentum stopper of the day when he drilled a 50-yard field goal on the final play of the first half to end Tennessee’s 20-0 scoring run and tie the score at 30-30 at the break.
“When they tried to ice me, that gave me more time to get pumped up,” Morgan said, referring to the timeout Tennessee called just before he lined up to attempt the field goal. “I think that it helped out when they tried to ice me. It gave me more time to swing my leg and talk to Adam [Erickson, Georgia’s holder]. We got it off and I’m happy it went in and tied it up.”
And if Morgan’s kick was not Georgia’s biggest momentum play, Marc Deas’ third-quarter blocked punt is certainly in the running.
Just after Georgia’s offense scored on its first drive of the second half, the Bulldogs’ defense forced a quick Tennessee punt and Deas broke through the middle of the Vols’ protection to deflect Matt Darr’s kick at the Georgia 46. Aaron Murray and the Bulldogs’ offense needed only four plays to make it a two-score game, finding the end zone on a 32-yard touchdown pass to Michael Bennett.
“I felt like I scored a touchdown to be honest,” Deas said of the blocked punt. “The crowd was roaring, it just touched me. I can’t even describe it right now. It’s something I’ll remember forever -- that first blocked punt.”
Tennessee also made some mistakes of its own in the kicking game that helped Georgia’s cause. Kicker Derrick Brodus missed one PAT and pushed a 28-yard field goal wide right at the end of the third quarter, allowing the Bulldogs to carry a two-touchdown lead into the final period.
It was the Vols’ fourth missed PAT of the season. Michael Palardy came on in relief of Brodus on Tennessee’s next PAT opportunity, converting the kick to cut Georgia’s lead to 51-44 in the fourth quarter.
So while the Bulldogs have been far from perfect on special teams, they tried to look at the positive from Saturday’s win and vowed to work to correct the unsightly issues.
“You can’t do anything about that [blocked PAT]. The get-off time was good. The other one, I really don’t know. We’re going to keep working on it,” Morgan said. “I had the long field goal that changed momentum and we had a blocked punt, so I think we had a pretty good night, but there’s a lot of things that we need to fix and tweak.”