After blowing leads last year, Volunteers showing they are finishers in 2016
Just when we were ready to anoint Jacob Eason as the future of the SEC, Joshua Dobbs reminded us to stay focused on the present.
Dobbs hit Jauan Jennings with a 43-yard Hail Mary touchdown pass on the final play of regulation, as Tennessee snatched victory from the jaws of defeat in breathtaking fashion, 34-31. The Volunteers moved to 5-0 and took control the East.
Only moments earlier, Jacob Eason appeared to throw his second game-winning TD toss in three weeks, connecting with Riley Ridley on a 47-yard bomb with 10 seconds remaining on the clock. It was the kind of throw expected of a five-star phenom, a laser from the right hash mark to the left-front pylon over a stunned UT secondary.
But thanks in part to a 15-yard unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty on the Bulldogs, Dobbs got the ball back on the plus side of midfield.
Yet again, Dobbs had to engineer a comeback after the Vols dug themselves a deep hole. A week ago, it was 21-0 to Florida in Knoxville before prevailing 38-28. Saturday, it was 17-0 UGA before a Dobbs scoring run 12 seconds before intermission.
Tenneessee’s senior quarterback, again bouncing back and forth between brilliant and befuddling, finished 16-of-26 passing for 230 yards with 3 touchdowns and 1 interception. He added 26 yards and a TD rushing, although he was more effective as a runner than the numbers indicate due to lost yardage on a pair of sacks.
Similarly, Eason’s play was sensational one possession but stupefying the next. In the end, he didn’t do enough to win.
The freshman signal caller was 17-of-28 for 211 yards with 2 TDs and 1 INT. Eason (below) even scored himself by recovering a fumble over the goal line. However, he also coughed one up in his own end zone that the Volunteers pounced on for six.
With three lead changes in the final 2:56, this game was an emotional roller coaster for everyone involved. The strip sack of Eason made it 28-24 Vols, their first lead of the game. Eason’s NFL-caliber touchdown strike regained the advantage for Georgia, 31-28. Dobbs-to-Jennings ended the wildest game in the league thus far in 2016.
Had that pass been knocked down, the Bulldogs would have advanced to 4-1 and taken the lead in the East with a head-to-head tiebreaker over UT.
Instead, UGA falls to 3-2. In order to make it to the conference championship game, the Dawgs would have to win out and hope Tennessee loses three of its remaining SEC games. In all likelihood, any dreams of Atlanta are now dashed.
As for the Volunteers, following back-to-back comebacks over Florida and Georgia in the most dramatic of ways, they strengthened their grasp on the division. Halfway through a murderous four-week stretch, they now travel to undefeated Texas A&M in Week 6 before hosting undefeated — and No. 1 — Alabama in Week 7.
UT came into the season with a reputation for not finishing games. That rep seems to have been squashed for good.
The Vols made plenty of mistakes in this contest. Running back Jalen Hurd thought he had a sure touchdown before being blown up at the Bulldogs’ 2-yard line. The resulting fumble took seven points off the board.
Dobbs also had some gaffes here and there, highlighted by an underthrown pass along the left sideline that ended up a gift interception. His receivers were also inconsistent, which — with the exception of the second half against the Gators when they grabbed everything — has been the case most of the year.
Nevertheless, Jennings (below) made the perhaps grab of the year among a sea of red-and-black defenders on that last-second prayer.
Despite getting destroyed by Ole Miss seven days prior, UGA had a great game plan and gave Tennessee everything it could handle for 60 minutes. The running game took some pressure off Eason’s shoulders early.
But when he was needed late, Eason showed why he’s already being called the next Matthew Stafford in Athens. He simply has the kind of natural ability that you can’t coach, specifically a Howitzer attached to his right shoulder capable of firing the football into the tightest of windows. He’s going to be a star.
He was set to be the star of this tilt between the hedges. Destiny was not on Eason’s side, though. He’ll have to wait.
Perhaps destiny is getting comfortable sidling up next to the Volunteers. An argument can be made that they’ve only played three good halves all season: the second stanzas vs. Virginia Tech, Florida and now Georgia.
One way or another, UT is the class of the East. The Gators and Bulldogs were likely their only legitimate competition in the division. Kentucky is a complete mess. Missouri is still rebuilding. South Carolina is hitting the reset button. Vanderbilt is seemingly always hitting the reset button. Rocky Top is riding high.
Even if the Vols lose to the Aggies or Crimson Tide, they’ll still be atop the East based on head-to-head results with UF and UGA.
Tennessee came into the campaign as overwhelming favorites in the division. But when Appalachian State went into Neyland Stadium in Week 1 and demanded overtime, the experts began to wonder if they had too much faith in the Volunteers.
Through five games now, UT has been tested every time. The Hokies gave them fits before fumbling away their chances. Ohio wasn’t intimidated despite being outmanned. The Gators and Bulldogs put the Vols three scores in the hole. On talent alone, each of them should have been able to bury Tennessee for good.
These Vols are finishers, though. That was the one characteristic Butch Jones and Co. lacked a year ago. Well, they’ve found it.