KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Georgia coach Mark Richt didn’t talk this week about getting a shot at his 100th career victory, but his players sure did.
"All the players were talking about it in the locker room during the week," quarterback Aaron Murray said. "We wanted to win this because it was a big SEC game, but also wanted to win this for coach Richt too."
Richt, who seemed to be fighting for his job after an 0-2 start, has coached Georgia into a two-way tie with South Carolina for first place in the Southeastern Conference East Division. The Bulldogs (4-2, 3-1) appear to be in the better position to make a run starting next week at Vanderbilt.
"We are definitely in the race," Richt said. "It is exciting for me, the fans and the team. The SEC is a great league. If you can win the East, it’s big. If you win the SEC, it’s huge. I have my first SEC ring from 2002. I’ve never been much on rings, but it is significant for what it stands for. I’m just glad we’re in the race."
The game also broke a string of wins by the home team in the series. Richt got his first big win in 2001 in Knoxville against a sixth-ranked Tennessee squad, but the Vols managed to log lopsided victories in the Bulldogs’ two most recent trips to Neyland Stadium.
Not this time.
The teams played to a draw in the first half. Each had a pair of field goals, and Tennessee had just 30 more yards of offense and held the ball just 18 seconds longer than the Bulldogs.
The Vols (3-2, 0-2) started the second half with the ball but came out cold and never seemed to recover, while Georgia took advantage. James Stone snapped the ball over Tyler Bray’s head for a 15-yard loss, and Matt Darr’s 31-yard punt gave Georgia a short field with the ball at the Vols 38.
Tennessee appeared to have the Bulldogs stopped at the 9-yard line when Murray missed Orson Charles on a pass near the end zone, but the Vols’ Daryl Vereen was called for pass interference, giving Georgia a fresh set of downs at the 2-yard line.
Crowell ran the ball three straight times and punched the ball in the end zone on a 1-yard run that gave the Bulldogs a 13-6 lead with 8:19 left in the third quarter.
The Vols appeared to have an answer on the next drive with a 66-yard touchdown on a pass from Bray to Marlin Lane on third down, a play that saw Lane roll over the back of Michael Gilliard. A review of the play showed Lane’s knee touched the ground 3 yards shy of the first-down line.
Georgia started the subsequent drive on its own 7-yard line, but it didn’t matter. Murray launched a pass to Malcolm Mitchell, and Mitchell was 71 yards downfield by the time Marsalis Teague caught up to him. Two plays later, Crowell ran 17 yards for a touchdown to give the Bulldogs a 20-6 lead with 4:51 to go in the third quarter.
"We came out in the third quarter and had a little meltdown for a couple of possessions," Tennessee coach Derek Dooley said. "We lost our composure a little bit. We pressed, got anxious and frustrated, and that was disappointing."
Georgia relied on a balance of running and passing to keep Tennessee at bay. Murray finished 15 for 25 for 227 yards, Mitchell — who injured his left hamstring in the second half — had 126 yards on three catches and Crowell led five runners with 58 yards on 19 carries and the two scores.
Meanwhile, the Vols continued to be one-dimensional. Bray was 18 of 33 for 251 yards and no interceptions but neglected to get a passing touchdown for the first time since taking over the offense on Oct. 30, 2010, in a loss at South Carolina.
The running game has been an emphasis during practice since Tennessee lost 9 yards on the ground in a 33-23 loss at Florida on Sept. 17. The Vols looked even more miserable against the SEC’s second-best defense after losing starting tailback Tauren Poole to a hamstring and finished with minus-20 yards rushing.
Bray left the game late in the fourth quarter after his right hand hit a defender’s helmet on a passing play. Trainers wrapped his throwing hand to protect an injured thumb as Matt Simms took over and scored on a 1-yard run with 2:45 left in the game. But it was too little, too late.
Tennessee couldn’t take advantage of good field position. Georgia committed five penalties — four holding calls, a facemask and a late hit — that resulted in a loss of 60 yards to start the fourth quarter The Vols got the ball back at the Bulldogs 43 but ended up losing 6 yards on the drive and punting.
"It’s pretty frustrating, but we’ve just got to keep working at it," Tennessee offensive lineman Dallas Thomas said. "Like coach Dooley said, ‘Keep sawing wood, don’t get affected by it.’ Georgia’s defense is good, but it always goes back to us, our lack of communication. They didn’t do anything we haven’t seen before."
The Vols, who next host No. 1 LSU, also missed a scoring opportunity when a 51-yard field goal attempt by Michael Palardy narrowly sailed wide right. Palardy connected on field goals of 28 and 43 yards later in the half.
Blair Walsh kicked field goals of 35 and 23 yards in the first half for Georgia.