By Jimmy Hyams
Tennessee showed flashes of being able to compete with a top three team in the nation Saturday night.
But as the game progressed, the gap grew.
And it left you wondering how high the Vols must climb to be competitive in the SEC.
Georgia (5-0) outscored Tennessee 23-0 in the final 30 minutes and 9 seconds en route to a 43-14 before about 80,000 fans at Neyland Stadium — some 20,000-to-25,000 wearing Georgia red — and Peyton Manning.
Georgia has now won eight of the last 10 against the Vols and outscored UT 132-26 in the last three games. UT’s 1-4 start is its worst since the 1988 team opened 0-6.
Looking to ignite a struggling offense, Tennessee started true freshman Brian Maurer at quarterback. He provided a spark, throwing for 205 yards and two touchdowns in the first half, including a beautiful 73-yard scoring strike to Marquez Callaway. And the Vols had first-down plays of 16, 16, 18, 21 and 21 yards.
“Brian done a really good job in the first half,’’ said Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt. “He stood in there and made some throws down the field in the first half. He went through his progressions. He kept his poise, kept his eyes down the field, made some nice throws. And it enabled us to create some explosive plays and soften them up a little bit so we could run the ball some.’’
But in the second half, as Georgia’s defense adjusted, Maurer threw for just 54 yards – 33 coming on a long fade route to Jauan Jennings, who had seven catches for 114 yards and a touchdown. Jennings was UT’s best player against Georgia, fighting for extra yards with each reception and making a terrific snag on a long ball.
Pruitt praised his senior wideout.
“He’s not been healthy since we’ve been here,’’ Pruitt said. “He’s had two knee surgeries. He’s not practiced a lot. But the guy is the ultimate competitor. He competes every day. We need more guys like him.’’
Maurer, who played four series against Florida with limited success, was on target mostly with slants over the middle. His scoring pass to Jennings between two defenders was big league. Maurer also hit two long balls – to Jennings and Callaway.
But, Pruitt said, Maurer had about eight to 15 plays “he’ll learn from.’’
Pruitt said he went with the true freshman over Jarrett Guarantano because the redshirt junior had “kind of been pressing.’’
Pruitt complimented a 14-yard toss over the middle Guarantano made right after replacing Maurer, but it was
Guarantano’s only completion in five attempts.
“Jarrett is a team guy,’’ Pruitt said. “…Jarrett is a guy that will help us win some football games down the road, I guarantee you that, with his attitude and work ethic.’’
Maybe so, but you can just about guarantee Maurer will start when UT hosts Mississippi State (3-2) Saturday at noon.
A 25-point underdog, Tennessee led 14-10 after the first play of the second quarter. Georgia was up 20-14 with two minutes left in the first half when the Vols drove into field goal range, where Brent Cimaglia missed his first of the season, from 47 yards.
Instead of a 20-17 halftime deficit for UT, Georgia marched down for a touchdown with nine seconds left for a 26-14 lead and the momentum at halftime.
UT went scoreless in the second half and couldn’t stop a balanced Georgia attack that rushed for 238 yards and passed for 2887 more.
Bulldog junior quarterback Jake Fromm carved up the UT defense, going 24 of 29 for 288 yards and two touchdowns as the Vols rarely mounted a pass rush.
“That’s the third time in my career I’ve gone against Jake Fromm,’’ Pruitt said. “It’s hard to fool him. I think we did one time and they had a false start.
“When you play against a guy like that, you got to call the game backwards.’’
In other words, be unpredictable.
While UT had some positive moments, Georgia outgained the Vols 526 yards to 343, had 36:28 time of possession to 23:32, and held UT to 70 rushing yards on 29 attempts.
“Nobody is looking for a pat on the back for playing hard, right?’’ Pruitt said.
“Our No. 1 goal is to win every game we play. That’s our No. 1 goal. We didn’t walk out there and say, `I hope we play good tonight or I hope play ‘em good for the first half. Our goal is to find a way to win every game. That’s the bottom line.
“And that will always be our goal. … That’s gotta be the expectations.’’