NASHVILLE, Tenn. — It will take five more games to figure out if Georgia has turned a corner or if it’s just the second-worst team in the SEC’s Eastern Division.
Saturday night, however, it didn’t matter to the jubilant Bulldogs, who came from behind to beat Vanderbilt 20-17 on a 37-yard field goal by Brandon Coutu as time expired.
“We look back at last year and everybody says Auburn is the game that turned the season around,” senior center Fernando Velasco said. “Hopefully, at the end of this season, we can say this Vanderbilt game was the game that turned the season around and we started playing Georgia Bulldog football.”
The Bulldogs (5-2, 3-2 SEC), who trailed by 10 at halftime, broke a six-game losing streak in their division and celebrated by dancing on the Commodores’ midfield emblem as a sellout homecoming crowd of 39,773 filed out of Vanderbilt Stadium.
“I kicked it, and I knew it was good, so I didn’t watch it for very long,” said Coutu, who missed a 49-yard attempt earlier in the game when he hit the left upright.
The play of the game and maybe the season came with 2:34 left when freshman linebacker Darryl Gamble stopped a promising Vanderbilt drive by stripping the ball from Cassen Jackson-Garrison. Dannell Ellerbe recovered the fumble on the Bulldogs’ 8-yard line to set up Georgia’s game-winning drive.
Gamble had overrun the play, which would have set up first-and-goal inside Georgia’s 10-yard line, but reached his right hand back just in time to knock the ball from Jackson-Garrison’s arm.
“We did make a mistake on the play,” defensive coordinator Willie Martinez. “We didn’t execute it properly, but we were flying around, making a play. Not that I condone the mistake, but that’s kind of good because we’ve been preaching that, just let yourself go, have some fun, you don’t have to be perfect.”
Georgia’s offense certainly wasn’t. The Bulldogs had one drive of longer than 38 yards before taking over following Ellerbe’s fumble recovery, but they rode a workhorse back to a 10-play, 73-yard drive to set up Coutu’s kick.
The heavy lifting was done by freshman tailback Knowshon Moreno, who made his first start and finished with career highs in yards (157) and carries (28). He had more carries than any Georgia back since Musa Smith had 37 against Mississippi in 2002.
“He was kind of willing his way a few times,” head coach Mark Richt said. “He was definitely the catalyst in the second half to get us going.”
Moreno had six carries for 30 yards on the decisive drive.
“Our team needs a lot more Knowshons,” said tight end Tripp Chandler, who had an 11-yard catch to move Georgia into Coutu’s field goal range.
At the halftime break, the Bulldogs trailed 17-7 and appeared headed for their first back-to-back losses to the Commodores since the 1950s, but both units turned it around at halftime.
Georgia’s defense, which was led by defensive tackle Geno Atkins’ eight stops, allowed 212 yards in the first half and 98 after the break. Vanderbilt was 0-for-5 on third down conversion attempts in the second half.
The Bulldogs' offense had 143 yards at halftime and 225 yards in the second half.
“In the second half, we had to make a point that we were going to put it in No. 24’s hands,” offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said. “It was good to see us do what we needed to do in the fourth quarter.”
Vanderbilt (3-3, 1-3) built its lead on two Sean Walker touchdowns. Walker scored on a 15-yard reverse run and on a spectacular 16-yard catch in the back left corner of the end zone. In the end, the difference was turnovers. The Commodores had two; the Bulldogs had none.
“We have to take care of the football,” Vanderbilt head coach Bobby Johnson said. “We’re fighting and scratching to beat Georgia, and we can’t give the ball away.”
Georgia has an open date Saturday and then will play No. 13 Florida on Oct. 27 in Jacksonville, Fla.
“It feels good to come away with a win,” Ellerbe said, “but we still didn’t play like we’d like to.”