ATHENS — Georgia pulled out all the stops.
An extra practice in full pads. An emotional speech from a former Bulldogs star. The result was a dominating win over Tennessee that restored a glimmer of hope in a disappointing season.
“If we can keep playing games like this,” quarterback Aaron Murray said, “we’ll finish the season off strong.”
Georgia (2-4, 1-3 Southeastern Conference) still has a long climb just to get back to .500, but a 41-14 rout of the Volunteers sure improved the mood between the hedges.
The Bulldogs snapped a four-game losing streak, their longest in two decades, and have a chance to build a winning streak facing Vanderbilt (2-3, 1-1) and Kentucky (3-3, 0-3) the next two weeks.
Coach Mark Richt shook things up at the start of the week when he had the team practice in full pads — the first time the Bulldogs have done that on the Monday after a game.
They got an additional boost when former Georgia linebacker Boss Bailey delivered an impassioned speech to the players the night before they faced the Volunteers.
“He pretty much called them out,” Richt said, “but he did it in a way that was very compassionate. He obviously loves Georgia. He obviously loves these guys. But he had to tell them they were not playing ball the way we play ball at Georgia. That’s what they needed to hear.”
Murray’s improvement is perhaps the most heartening development.
The redshirt freshman had his best game yet against Tennessee, completing 17 of 25 passes for 266 yards and two touchdowns. He also ran seven times for 41 yards and two more scores, including a 35-yard scamper for Georgia’s first TD.
Murray looked to his left and saw no one open, then spotted a huge gap down the right sideline. He took off and wasn’t hit until he tumbled into the end zone, again giving a glimpse of the mobility and quickness that not even the coaches knew he had until he took over as the starter.
“Aaron is such a special guy,” star receiver A.J. Green said. “I’ve been saying that since day one. Some of the stuff he can do is amazing, stuff that some older quarterbacks can’t even do.”
Of course, it helps having Green making spectacular plays and drawing double and triple coverage. He missed the first four games, suspended by the NCAA for selling a bowl jersey for $1,000. Since returning, he’s made 13 catches for 215 yards and three touchdowns.
“We never feel apart throughout all of this,” Green said. “We’re going to keep fighting through this thing and see if we can turn it around somehow.”
Tennessee (2-4, 0-3) never stood a chance, falling behind 17-0 in the opening quarter. The Vols turned it over three times, gave up four sacks (raising their SEC-worst total to 23) and rushed for only 9 yards.
“We ran into a motivated team,” coach Derek Dooley said. “They were hungry and ready to play. That’s what we expected Georgia to be like at the beginning of the season.”
The Vols played like they were still reliving a horrific loss at LSU, when they thought they had won the game but were caught with too many men on the field on the final play. Given an extra shot, the Tigers punched it over for a touchdown and a 16-14 victory.
“I was disappointed in how we competed,” Dooley said. “It’s easy to take a loss if you are competing. We obviously weren’t ready from start to finish.”
While Tennessee is clearly in rebuilding mode, Georgia still has hopes of finishing strong after a dismal start. The SEC East title is probably out of reach, even if they win out, but a remaining schedule with only two ranked teams — No. 22 Florida on Oct. 30 and No. 7 Auburn on Nov. 13 — sets up at least the chance of getting a respectable bowl bid.
If nothing else, Richt saw a team that hasn’t thrown in the towel.
“You can’t play the way we did unless the guys are sticking together,” he said. “They are still working and still believing and still doing what the coaches say. If we continue to do that, we’ve got a chance.”