KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- A few of Mark Richt’s players bumped him playfully as he walked toward the middle of the field. In the postgame locker room, behind closed doors, a more emotional scene ensued.
There remains plenty of time left in Georgia’s football season. A look back on the state of things just four weeks ago shows how much it could turn.
But on Saturday night, on the occasion of a 20-12 win at Tennessee, and on the occasion of Richt’s 100th career victory, it seemed the clock had turned back to better times.
Four weeks after Georgia’s football team was being written off by some, the Bulldogs are now in prime position in the race for a division title.
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“We believed the whole time,” senior cornerback Brandon Boykin said. “Look where we are right now.”
Richt has been under fire from critics for the program’s slip the past few years. An 0-2 start to this season didn’t help things. But after beating Tennessee, Georgia is now in a tie with South Carolina for first place in the SEC East. Although the Gamecocks own the head-to-head tiebreaker, Georgia has an easier remaining schedule than South Carolina as well as Florida (which is 2-2 in the SEC).
“We didn’t like being 0-2,” Richt said. “But we weren’t down on ourselves. We were looking more at the possibilities of what we could be instead of what we lost. Somebody even asked me, ‘How’d you turn it around after being 0-2.’ I mean sometimes you have to rally the troops somehow. We didn’t have to rally the troops, the troops were already there ready and fighting.”
Richt said he was “very humbled” at the scene in the locker room, where players and coaches dedicated the win to him. Ironically, Richt achieved the milestone against a team coached by Derek Dooley, the son of Vince Dooley, who hired Richt.
“He might not have said it all week. He wasn’t talking about it. But everyone was talking about it,” quarterback Aaron Murray said of Richt’s attempt for win No. 100. “We were talking about it in the room. Hey this is big for us, but let’s win this for coach Richt too, it’s his 100th win.”
While Georgia won, it also was on the wrong side of a comical moment: A series of penalties in the fourth quarter saw the Bulldogs facing second down and 56, then third-and-57 and fourth-and-58.
Offensive coordinator Mike Bobo relayed the coaching discussion.
“I think Coach Richt said, ‘Take a picture of it,’ when it was fourth-and-57,” Bobo said.
“That’s a first for me,” Richt said. “It’s gotta be in the top 10 for history.”
Georgia won this game in the third quarter, when it outscored Tennessee 14-0 and outgained the Volunteers 179-11. The big play was a 71-yard pass completion from Aaron Murray to Malcolm Mitchell, setting up Isaiah Crowell’s second touchdown of the game.
Tennessee rallied late, scoring with 2:47 left in the game. That was only the second touchdown yielded by the Georgia defense in the past four games, all Georgia victories.
But Georgia blocked the extra point, then recovered the ensuing onside kick.
The first half of Saturday’s game was quick and uneventful: Each team had three drives, resulting in two field goals.
But the tone was set on Georgia’s opening drive, when it went for it twice on fourth down, and got it. That went against the normally conservative Richt’s nature.
“The week before everyone’s all complaining that we shoulda gone for it,” Murray said. “We took that personal this week, in really proving to him ... We were like, ‘Hey coach, you can trust us.’ ”
Georgia got a break when Tennessee opened the second half with the ball. On third down, the snap went over quarterback Tyler Bray’s head and he had to cover the ball at the seven.
The Bulldogs took over at the Volunteers’ 38, and a defensive holding call on third down set them up at the 2. Three plays later, Crowell scored on a 2-yard run up the middle.
Then the game turned in a span of three plays:
Tennessee thought it had a 66-yard catch-and-run by Marlin Lane, but it was over-ruled on replay that Lane was down, forcing a Tennessee punt.
After a punt, which set Georgia up at its own 7, Murray hit a streaking Mitchell on a 71-yard bomb. Two plays later Crowell ran it in from 17 yards out.
Richt appeared to be in a reflective mode after the game. He admitted his team started this year by “not being ready” against Boise State but liked how it responded.
“If this was the second year of my career at Georgia, I mean all this stuff wouldn’t even have been cropping up,” Richt said. “We had two years that weren’t very exciting, last year especially.”