NASHVILLE, Tenn.—Don’t let the 31-14 final score fool you. Tenth-ranked Georgia’s 17-point win over Vanderbilt today was far from comfortable as the score might appear. Instead, for the fourth time in their last five trips to Nashville, the Bulldogs were tested by the Commodores, while somewhat fortunate to post a victory this afternoon.
“We did enough good things to be proud of, but enough bad things that could’ve gotten us beat,” Georgia head coach Mark Richt said following the game. “We’re thankful for the victory. … We’ve got things that need to be cleaned up.”
After an exchange of punts to begin the game, Georgia placekicker Marshall Morgan’s 37-yard field goal attempt was shanked wide left, squandering a 68-yard run by sophomore sensation Nick Chubb. Chubb finished the game with 189 yards on 19 carries, but was kept out of the end zone for the first time since the third game of last season against Troy.
After the Morgan miss, the Bulldogs’ defense forced a Vanderbilt punt, which sophomore Isaiah McKenzie toted back 77 yards for a touchdown, and the game’s initial points. For McKenzie, it was remarkably his fourth kick return for a touchdown (three- punt, one- kickoff) for his mere 14-game career at Georgia.
The Commodores answered with a 47-yard field goal by Tommy Openshaw. But, soon thereafter, the Bulldogs capped a 64-yard drive—all yards gained rushing—with a 31-yard touchdown run by sophomore Sony Michel. Michel finished the contest with 56 yards on 12 carries, and also made two receptions.
Vanderbilt answered with another Openshaw field goal, and had the opportunity to cut its deficit to five points, but a third Openshaw attempt just before halftime hit an upright, and Georgia led 14-6 at the half.
After missing on all five of his pass attempts during the first half, Georgia quarterback Greyson Lambert was a respectable 11-of-16 passing for 116 yards, no touchdowns and no interceptions in the second half. “The run game kept us in it [early], and our defense played a heck of a ballgame, which allowed us to find that rhythm a little bit late,” Lambert said.
Following an interception by Georgia’s Reggie Wilkerson, Lambert drove the offense to a field goal. And, after a Vanderbilt punt, the quarterback capped an 8-play, 66-yard drive with a 5-yard touchdown run of his own, giving the Bulldogs what seemed like a rather comfortable 24-6 advantage late in the third quarter.
With 9:25 remaining in the game, Marshall missed a 43-yard field goal. It was curiously his seventh missed field goal in his last 21 attempts (dating back to last season) after making an SEC record 20 field goals in a row.
Still leading by 18 points, the Bulldogs dodged a bullet when Vanderbilt turned the ball over on downs on Georgia’s 4-yard line after driving 71 yards. However, after the Bulldogs couldn’t move the ball and Vanderbilt benefitted from a poor punt, Commodore quarterback Johnny McCrary passed for a touchdown and then ran for a two-point conversion, cutting Georgia’s lead to 24-14. For the game, McCrary completed 24 of 50 passes for 295 yards, but threw three interceptions, was sacked three times, and was often under pressure.
The pressure was squarely on the Bulldogs when Reggie Davis didn’t properly field the ensuing pooch kickoff, losing a fumble recovered by Vanderbilt on Georgia’s 8-yard line. For the Bulldogs, it was their third muffed return on an opposing pooch kickoff in just their last seven games dating back to 2014.
“If everybody did what they’re supposed to do [on the kickoff], there would have been a lot more time [for Davis to field the kick], and for him to get on it safely with a lot less drama,” Richt said. “But, it was absolutely one of the things that could have cost us.”
Two plays following the misplayed kickoff, linebacker Jake Ganus intercepted a McCrary pass in the end zone. However, Georgia would soon have to give the ball up, and, again, Vanderbilt drove down the field and threatened to score until committing a turnover. This time, safety Dominick Sanders snared a Commodore pass and raced 88 yards for a touchdown, giving the Bulldogs a 31-14 lead with just over a minute remaining.
“It was a couple of mistakes being made,” Sanders said in regards to Georgia allowing Vanderbilt to suddenly move the ball in the final minutes. “But, we kept our head in the game, and we kept playing hard.”
There was no quit in the Commodores as they drove down the field again in the final minute before, once again, Georgia’s defense rose up and stopped their host on their 4-yard line on the game’s final play.
“I definitely feel the effects of that game,” senior linebacker Jordan Jenkins said afterwards. Jenkins led an overall commendable effort by Georgia’s defense with 11 tackles, including 5½ for loss, and two sacks. “My body is sore…my body is tired. … Every time I come here (at Vanderbilt), there’s always some stuff that goes wrong. There are some bad things that happen, and things don’t always go our way.”
Like most any recent trip to Vanderbilt for the Dogs, plenty of things went wrong today, or didn’t exactly go Georgia’s way. However, at the end of a game that was an unforeseen nail biter at times, most importantly, the Bulldogs found a way to avoid getting beat.