KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Georgia left Neyland Stadium Saturday night as it should: in a celebratory mood. But a dominant final scoreline doesn’t erase the issues that arose for the Bulldogs, especially in the secondary.
The No. 3 Bulldogs outplayed Tennessee after a shaky first quarter and head home with a 43-14 win over their bitter rival in their first true road test of the season — and tested they were.
All week leading up to the game, head coach Kirby Smart and the Georgia defense praised the talented Volunteer wide receiving corps. They knew that the senior duo of Jauan Jennings and Marquez Callaway were not to be overlooked, yet they seemed unprepared to deal with their size and talent early on.
“They made some big plays,” safety Richard LeCounte said. “That’s what good teams are going to do.”
LeCounte was on the receiving end of one of those big plays in the first quarter. Callaway burned LeCounte and cornerback DJ Daniel on a double move for a wide-open 73-yard touchdown to open the scoring for the Volunteers. For a defense that praised Callaway all week, this one looked like it surprised them.
“They punched us in the face with a big play, and we responded,” Smart said.
But that long touchdown wouldn’t be the last punch thrown by the Volunteers. Callaway and Jennings ran free in the Georgia secondary for the entire first half. By halftime, the two had combined for 186 yards and two touchdowns.
It wasn’t like Georgia didn’t know the ball was going their way. Tennessee freshman quarterback Brian Maurer leaned heavily on his best wideouts, as eight of his 10 completions in the first half were to either Callaway or Jennings.
“We knew they had some great wideouts,” linebacker Azeez Ojulari said. “We knew we would have to tighten up and make plays.”
Maurer deserves some credit for the passing outburst that Tennessee displayed. Making the first start of his career, the freshman finished 14-of-28 with 259 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
“He did a nice job of getting the ball out of his hands and mixing things up,” Smart said. “I thought offensive coordinator Jim [Chaney] did a really nice job of putting a game plan together for a young quarterback.”
As a result, Jennings and Callaway built on their first half performance and continued to make plays for the Volunteers in the second half. Each finished the game with over 100 yards receiving and a touchdown.
“Their receiving corps is extremely physical and big,” Smart said. “They got some yards after the catch to help their quarterback out.”
This comes after Notre Dame tight end Cole Kmet caught nine passes for 108 yards and a touchdown in Georgia’s last game. LeCounte said after the game that the secondary would get back in the film room and fix things up, and they better do it quick.
Callaway and Jennings are probably the best wideouts the Georgia secondary has faced so far, but if the Bulldogs have SEC championship and College Football Playoff aspirations, they’re going to face even better ones.
But LeCounte is adamant that they’ll get problems figured out in practice. After all, the Bulldogs don’t have to go far to find some good wideouts to practice against.
“We practice against the best wide receivers in the nation every day,” he said.