ATHENS — Georgia is back on track for another SEC title chase, and it’s not too early to rule Tennessee out of the race.
Matthew Stafford passed for a career-best 310 yards, Knowshon Moreno ran for 101 yards and No. 10 Georgia beat Tennessee 26-14 on Saturday, leaving the Volunteers 0-3 in the Southeastern Conference for the first time in 20 years.
Georgia (5-1 overall, 2-1 SEC) recovered from its loss to Alabama on Sept. 27 by dominating the reeling Vols.
Georgia gained 458 yards on 81 plays, held Tennessee to 209 yards on 45 plays and had a 29-10 advantage in first downs.
It was a sweet victory for Georgia, which had lost two straight games and three of the last four in the rivalry. Senior receiver Mohamed Massaquoi said last year’s 35-14 loss at Tennessee may have been the low point of his career.
“Probably, because the way they beat us there wasn’t any question of who showed up that day,” he said. “We didn’t show up and they outplayed us in every aspect of the game. You want to bounce back and let them know you’re there to play.”
Added Massaquoi: “No one can say this is not a rivalry now.”
Massaquoi had five catches for 103 yards and a touchdown.
Tennessee (2-4) netted only 1 yard on the ground. Senior Arian Foster had only three carries for three yards.
“I don’t know where our running game has gone,” Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer said. “Offensively we’re just not getting any rhythm.”
Foster rushed for 98 yards and three touchdowns in last year’s win over Georgia. He’s been held under 40 yards rushing in all three of the Voles’ SEC losses.
Fulmer said he was braced for criticism after Tennessee’s worst SEC start in his 17 years as coach.
“Everybody in the world is going to talk about me, about the staff,” Fulmer said, adding his staff and coaches have to determine “what kind of backbone have we got.
“I’m going to look them in the eye and say ‘I’m not quitting.’ We’ve kicked butt before. We’re getting ours kicked now. It will cycle back around.”
The Vols capitalized on two interceptions thrown by Stafford for their only touchdowns. Nick Stephens, in his second career start, threw two touchdown passes.
The Vols, off to their worst conference start since 1988, were held under 20 points for the fourth straight game. Their only win in that span was a 13-9 victory over Northern Illinois.
“It’s not just us,” said Stephens of the struggling offense. “It’s not just the defense. It’s everything.
“It’s frustrating to lose. Period.”
Tennessee drew 10 penalties for 97 yards.
“The frustration from the season is showing through,” Fulmer said. “Being competitive versus being stupid, that’s part of it.”
Georgia turned the game over to Moreno and freshman tailback Caleb King after Blair Walsh’s field goal on the first play of the fourth quarter gave the Bulldogs a 23-14 lead.
Walsh, a freshman, kicked four field goals despite suffering a migraine Saturday morning and requiring an IV.
Walsh’s final field goal, a 28-yarder, came after a 17-play drive consumed 10:55 in the final quarter. Georgia held the ball 42 minutes overall.
Stephens made his first start in a conference game after taking the job from junior Jonathan Crompton. Stephens completed a 60-yard pass to Denarius Moore to set up his touchdown pass to Gerald Jones in the second quarter.
Stephens added a 12-yard touchdown pass to Lucas Taylor in the third quarter, cutting Georgia’s lead to 20-14. Stephens was 13-for-30 passing for 208 yards.
Stafford was 25-for-36 passing with a touchdown, but he threw two picks inside the Tennessee 20. Each turnover led to a touchdown drive for the Vols.
Georgia didn’t punt in the first half and gained 273 yards, including 211 passing by Stafford.
Leading 13-7, the Bulldogs took the ball on their 3 with 2:17 left in the half after freshman Richard Samuel bobbled a kickoff. When Georgia faced a third-and-8, Tennessee called a timeout in hopes of getting the ball back in good field position. Instead, Stafford passed to Moreno for 14 yards to spark a 97-yard touchdown drive.
Tennessee was hurt by two personal foul penalties on Georgia’s long drive. Safety Demetrice Morley drew a helmet-to-helmet penalty for his hit on Massaquoi, knocking Massaquoi out of the game for a few plays. Cornerback DeAngelo Willingmam was called for a late hit on receiver Demiko Goodman on the Vols’ sideline after Goodman’s 17-yard reception.
Willingham’s penalty gave Georgia a first down at the Tennessee 7 with 26 seconds left. On third down from the 9, Stafford passed to an open Massaquoi for the touchdown and a 20-7 lead.
Senior fullback Brannan Southerland, returning from two foot surgeries, gained 37 yards to the Tennessee 1 on a third-down screen pass from Stafford on the Bulldogs’ opening drive. Southerland scored on the next play.