KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee coach Butch Jones believes his team showed Saturday just how close it is to getting back to where it wants to be.
But it was tough for any of the Volunteers to think about a brighter future as they looked back on the golden opportunity that had just slipped away.
Tennessee was just a few seconds away from delivering the first signature victory of Jones’ tenure before No. 6 Georgia rallied for a 34-31 overtime victory.
Georgia’s Marshall Morgan kicked a 42-yard field goal in overtime after Aaron Murray threw a game-tying touchdown pass to Rantavious Wooten with 5 seconds remaining in regulation as Georgia overcame a flurry of injuries. Morgan kicked his winning field goal after Tennessee’s Alton “Pig” Howard fumbled on Tennessee’s overtime possession.
“It’s another step, another building block,” said Jones, in his first season at Tennessee. “We need to learn how to win these football games. That’s a part of the process of learning how to win, but you can see it. I can see it evolving. I can see it every day.”
Tennessee (3-3, 0-2 SEC) has lost 19 straight games against ranked opponents. This may have been the most painful one of all.
“I’d say it hurts more than any other loss I’ve had here, due to the fact that we’ve worked so hard, you know in the offseason for moments like these,” Tennessee defensive end Corey Miller said.
Tennessee erased a 14-point halftime deficit and took a 31-24 lead with 1:54 remaining on a 7-yard touchdown run by Rajion Neal, who rushed for 148 yards on 28 carries. The Vols appeared to take the lead again when Howard dove toward the right front corner of the end zone on the first overtime possession.
Howard’s play was initially ruled a 7-yard touchdown, but replays showed he fumbled prior to crossing the goal line, turning the potential score into a turnover and touchback.
“Alton gave us a spark today,” Jones said. “He was just trying to make a play.”
Murray went 19 of 35 for 196 yards with three touchdowns and became the Southeastern Conference’s all-time leader in career yards passing. Murray has thrown for 11,625 yards to break the record held by David Greene, who threw for 11,528 yards for Georgia from 2001-04.
“A lot of guys went down today and that hurts a lot,” Murray said. “We hit a lot of adversity all day long and we had to push through it, find guys to step up and guys stepped up, made some big plays for us.”
The list of Georgia injuries was headed by running back Keith Marshall, who hurt his right knee taking a hit from Tennessee’s Cam Sutton while reaching for an incomplete pass in the first quarter and was carted into the locker room. Wide receivers Michael Bennett and Justin Scott-Wesley and punter Collin Barber were knocked out of the game later. Georgia played the entire game without injured star running back Todd Gurley and safeties Tray Matthews and Connor Norman.
Georgia (4-1. 3-0) still built a 17-3 halftime lead on the strength of Morgan’s 56-yard field goal – the longest in Neyland Stadium history – and two Murray touchdown passes. But after a 39-yard field-goal attempt by Morgan bounced off the left upright in the third quarter, Tennessee rallied to tie the game.
Tennessee had worn “Smokey gray” alternate uniforms Saturday in hopes of ending its history of frustration against ranked teams. The Vols hadn’t used alternate uniforms since wearing black jerseys to a 31-13 victory over No. 21 South Carolina on Halloween 2009, their last win over a Top 25 team.
Morgan’s miss had the Vols believing they could pull the upset. They spent the rest of the game trying to prove it.
“We showed that we can go toe to toe with anybody in the country,” Tennessee linebacker Dontavis Sapp said.
Tennessee cut the lead to 17-10 on Marquez North’s diving 19-yard catch in the left corner of the end zone. The Vols scored the tying touchdown with 1:25 left in the third quarter when Jalen Reeves-Maybin blocked a punt that Devaun Swafford returned 15 yards.
The game turned into a shootout from there, as Tennessee continually delivered in fourth-down situations.
Neal had a 1-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter that was set up by his own 43-yard burst on a fourth-and-1 play from the Tennessee 34. Neal’s go-ahead touchdown late in the fourth period followed a 28-yard completion from Justin Worley to A.J. Branisel on a fourth-and-1 play from the Georgia 35.
The Vols proved they can compete with top teams in the SEC. Now they must learn to close the deal.
“This team has become closer than any team I’ve been a part of and they hurt, but we’re going to keep grinding,” Jones said. “That’s the only way I know how to do it and that’s the only way they’re going to know how to do it. I’m just proud of them.”