NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Mark Richt made the slow walk across the field at Vanderbilt Stadium, under a shadow, the late afternoon sunlight creeping away. Richt held the hand of his wife, Katharyn, two state troopers at their sides, while three family members trailed.
Minutes earlier Chris Conley had made the same slow walk, his parents by his side. But Conley walked with crutches, the latest key Georgia player to suffer an injury.
Those slow, painful walks were symbols of a lost afternoon and increasingly of a lost season.
The Georgia football team had not lost at Vanderbilt in 22 years. The streak ended Saturday with a 31-27 loss, after a controversial penalty, an eerie special teams mistake and a decisive fumble.
“It’s definitely one that’s gonna hit us deep,” sophomore linebacker Jordan Jenkins said. “I mean, we thought we had it won.”
Georgia led 27-14 early in the fourth quarter, but then the game turned on a controversial penalty. Linebacker Ramik Wilson was called for targeting when he hit Vanderbilt receiver Jordan Matthews, knocking the ball loose on fourth down. Replays showed it was a shoulder-to-shoulder hit, and a replay review did overturn Wilson’s ejection.
But the 15-yard penalty remained, giving Vanderbilt the first down. It scored a few plays later.
“I promised myself I wouldn’t say anything horrendous about the officiating (Saturday), so I’m not gonna do that,” Richt said afterwards, leaving it at that.
Jenkins was more forthcoming.
“I’m not trying to say much, but that whole call was a B.S. call to me,” Jenkins said.
Still, while the targeting penalty loomed large, Georgia still ahead after that touchdown. But it couldn’t hold on.
The offense sputtered, going three-and-out on three straight possessions as Vanderbilt mounted its comeback. Quarterback Aaron Murray ended the day with just 114 passing yards, the third lowest total in his four-year career.
“We didn’t do our part (Saturday), that’s for sure,” offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said.
Once again injuries seemed to limit Georgia’s attack, with very little downfield passing — the product of three top receivers out — and few breakout runs — the product of star tailback Todd Gurley missing a third straight game. Bobo again declined to use the injuries as an excuse.
“No, we still had chances to win this football game and get something going,” Bobo said. “It is what it is right now. The guys that we’ve got we’ve gotta improve and get better. We all have got to do a better job, myself included.”
And then there were the special teams.
Georgia punter Collin Barber went back to punt with 3:05 left, Georgia clinging to a 27-24 lead. Trent Frix’s snap was high, and Barber had to pounce on the ball at the 13. It was on the same side of the field where two years ago Georgia had a punt blocked by Vanderbilt, with punter Drew Butler saving the game with a last-second tackle.
But this time the game could not be saved. Jerron Seymour scored on the next play to make it 31-27.
Vanderbilt also scored a touchdown off of a fake field goal in the first half. And Damian Swann’s muffed punt, in Georgia territory, set up the drive that included the Wilson penalty.
But Richt declined to say special teams play alone was the reason for the loss.
“I’m not gonna say that,” he said. “I’m gonna say that we certainly made mistakes on special teams. But it’s a team game. Offense has a responsibility. Defense has a responsibility. Special teams has a responsibility, as well. We win as a team; we lose as a team.”
The much-maligned defense did have a better day, including its first points of the year. Freshman cornerback Shaq Wiggins’ 39-yard interception return gave Georgia a 17-14 lead and seemingly turned the game.
But down the stretch the defense couldn’t hold the lead. That was despite Vanderbilt playing the second half with its backup quarterback, after Austyn Carta-Samuels left with a leg injury.
And when the offense had one more chance, it couldn’t hold on to the ball. Freshman running back Brendan Douglas fumbled at the end of what would have been a first-down catch-and-run at Georgia’s 45.
That basically sealed it, although injury was soon added to insult.
When Georgia got the ball back at its 28 with 14 seconds left, the game ended on a Georgia incompletion. And on the desperation pass, Conley went down with what appeared to be a right ankle injury.
The only good news for Georgia is that it has a week off to heal up, physically and emotionally, and to re-evaluate its season. The Bulldogs (4-3 overall, 3-2 SEC) will need a Missouri collapse in order to win the SEC East. The Bulldogs could fall completely out of the rankings for the first time in two seasons.
“This is where our leaders really, really have to step up,” Murray said. “This is a much-needed open date; we got to figure this out. Do some soul searching and really figure out what we need to do individually and as a team to get better. There are still a lot of great games left, a big game versus Florida in a couple weeks. We got to put this one behind us, get back to work.”
Richt’s message to the team in the postgame locker room was to stick together. Several players, including Swann, repeated that phrase in their postgame interviews.
“People are about to coming at us from all different angles now, We ain’t this, we ain’t that. We’ve got a quality team, we still can come back and shock the world,” Swann said. “We probably can’t go to our main dreams. But we’ve still got a lot to play for.”