published Sunday, October 6th, 2013

Tennessee Vols dejected but proud of near-stunner against Georgia (with slideshow)

  • photo
    Georgia placekicker Marshall Morgan (13) scores the game-winning field goal during overtime. Georgia won 34-31.
    Photo by Dan Henry /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE -- Tennessee receiver Marquez North kneeled at the 35-yard line, his gray-gloved hand covering his face.

A little more than 10 yards away, Volunteers linebacker Dontavis Sapp stood like a statue, with his hands on his hips and his helmet resting a little above his forehead.

Moments earlier, Georgia kicker Marshall Morgan's 42-yard kick sailed through the goal-post uprights behind the south end zone at Neyland Stadium and ended the Vols' valiant bid to upset the sixth-ranked Bulldogs.

"So many things were going through my mind at that point in time," Sapp, a senior from Valdosta, Ga., said Saturday evening after Tennessee's 34-31 overtime loss. "It's hard to even tell what was going through my mind, it was so much. I left it all on the field. I had no more to give.

"Unfortunately we didn't come out with the win, but I was just taking it all in."

And there was a lot to soak in after Tennessee came one defensive stop away from ending an 18-game losing streak against ranked opponents and delivering Butch Jones a signature win six games into his first season as the Vols' coach.

Tennessee took a 31-24 lead with 1:54 left in the game, but Aaron Murray, Georgia's record-setting quarterback, marched his team 75 yards, and his dart to Rantavious Wooten, and Morgan's extra point, tied the game with only five seconds left.

"I'd have to say it hurts more than any other loss I've had here," Vols senior defensive end Corey Miller said, "due to the fact that we've worked so hard in the offseason for moments like these that occur.

"I believe for a team who doesn't have the firepower offensively that we had last year, I feel like that shows so much character of our guys to come out and fight for an entire 60 minutes and play hard the way they did. I give credit to my team because these guys didn't give up today."

Trailing 17-3 at halftime, Tennessee relied on some true freshmen and Jones' decisions to go for three fourth-and-1 plays to get back into the game and eventually take the lead. The Vols' defense kept a team that scored 44 points against LSU a week ago relatively in check, though the Bulldogs lost a handful of their top playmakers to injuries.

An offense that managed 127 yards and three points before halftime found its groove behind tailback Rajion Neal, quarterback Justin Worley and a group of receivers who played their best collective game of the season.

"I'm very proud of every individual in our football program," Jones said. "You saw a football team, undermanned, that laid it on the line and made the plays to get it to that point. [We have to] learn how to finish, but I'm proud to be their head football coach.

"It's another step and another building block, but we need to learn how to win these football games," he added later. "That's part of the process of learning how to win, but you can see it. I can see it evolving."

After an effort that electrified a mostly full Neyland Stadium, Tennessee found another unusual way to lose at the end.

Pig Howard appeared to have scored on a 7-yard touchdown run on the Vols' series to open the overtime period, but video replay showed the ball slipped out of the receiver's hands a split-second before he would have hit the pylon with it.

As the replay showed in the giant video screen in the south end zone, Tennessee fans gasped as Georgia fans cheered.

"I was kind of on the goal line across, probably the opposite hash, and had a good look at him diving at it," recalled Worley, who completed 17 of 31 passes for 215 yards, one touchdowns and zero interceptions.

"I thought there might be the possibility the ball went out. I was hoping and praying it didn't, but situations happen."

As Tennessee's players sulked to their locker room at the opposite end of the field from where the game concluded, fans applauded the effort of their team.

"I don't think the loss set us back anywhere," said kicker Michael Palardy, who averaged 51 yards on six punts and made his only field-goal attempt. "Our confidence is still high. We're one team, we're one Tennessee, we're one family, and that's the biggest thing that Coach Jones has emphasized this week.

"I think it would have been great [to win], but like I said, we've shown that we can go and play with anybody in the entire country."

In Tennessee's locker room, Jones told his team what he would tell the media moments later.

"The great thing," he said, "is I didn't have to be the one to say it. Other players said it, and they talked about [having] a lot to play for and keep building. They can see it. They can see the progress. Obviously I told them that, too.

"It kills me because they have given everything," he said later. "I feel for our kids because they've been through so much, and to see them hurt like they have ... our fans should be exceptionally proud of their football team."

"We never gave up," Worley said. "We fought until the very last play. I think you have to look at that as an outsider and say, 'This team's doing something.'"

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com.

about Patrick Brown...

Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...

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