In the end, Georgia found a beginning.
In the end, the scoreboard read, Georgia 26, Tennessee 14. But the truly vital numbers were 17 plays, 81 yards, 10:59 time of possession. Those numbers told the story of the end of the Tennessee game, and the beginning of the rest of Georgia’s season.
The scoreboard clock showed 13:48 remaining in the game. Georgia had taken possession on its own 13-yard line, clinging to a 23-14 lead.
The Dogs lined up and ran their old-fashioned toss sweep to the left. Knowshon Moreno dashed for 11 yards. Then fullback Shaun Chapas crashed the middle for 4. Matthew Stafford passed to A.J. Green for 5.
On 3rd and 1, Moreno plunged for 3. After Moreno gained 1, Stafford found Green again for 14 to the Tennessee 49.
At this point, George Haffner took over the play-calling from Mike Bobo, and the Dogs took a nostalgic trip back in time, and down the field.
Moreno, toss sweep left for 6. Moreno, toss sweep left for 6. Enter Caleb King, who ran the same play for 7. And then for 7 more.
After being stymied for no gain, King then gained 9 on the toss sweep left. On 3rd and 1, Stafford kept for 3. First down at the Tennessee 11. After Chapas bulled for 6, King failed to gain, and Moreno lost 1.
But the point was made. Emphatically. Georgia told Tennessee, “We’re going to run the ball; try and stop us.” The Vols couldn’t.
Such a display was unimaginable two weeks ago. But Saturday, sometime during The Drive came the realization that we were witnessing Georgia’s young offensive line coming of age. Growing up right before our very eyes.
Incredibly, they did it after losing yet another lineman, this time left tackle Vince Vance, to a season-ending knee injury. “Our guys step in and don’t miss a beat,” Stafford told the Athens Banner-Herald. “They’re starting to jell a little bit.”
And they did it against a Tennessee defense that’s no slouch. They still rank 20th in the nation in total defense after Georgia ripped them for 458 yards. They came into the game on a statistical par with the South Carolina defense that stifled Georgia last month.
The unit that squeezed the last juice out of Tennessee included left tackle Clint Boling, a sophomore; left guard Cordy Glenn and center Ben Jones, both true freshmen; right guard Chris Davis, a sophomore; and right tackle Justin Anderson, a redshirt freshman.
How amazing is that lineup? Consider this research done by Marc Weiszer of the Banner-Herald: only one other top 10 team starts a freshman offensive lineman, and he’s a redshirt at that: Matt Reynolds of BYU.
The only other true freshman offensive lineman starting for a Top 25 team is Michael Brewster of Ohio State.
“The good thing is, they’re not true freshmen anymore,” coach Mark Richt told Weiszer. “They’re six games into the season. Even the sophomores are getting experience under their belt.
“This season bodes well, but I think the future seems very bright if everybody comes back from injuries well. We ought to really have a group that ought to stay together quite a bit, and grow physically and just grow as a unit.”
Not only did the young line plow its way down the field during The Drive; it also protected Stafford admirably. He wasn’t sacked in an SEC game for the first time since the 2007 Alabama game.
Recall that Stafford spent most of the 2008 Alabama game running for his life. His post-game headache lasted several days. One hit reduced him to calling plays from his Highland Park High School playbook.
Given time to throw against Tennessee, Stafford responded with his first 300 yard passing game. Despite two interceptions deep in Tennessee territory, Richt thought Stafford played his best game.
“He just did a beautiful job of staying in there. That part of his game was the best I had seen it,” noted Richt in his post-game remarks. “I just thought overall it was his best decision-making game. I thought it was an outstanding game in his decisions and his ability to stand in there and let it rip.”
Stafford had time to lead Georgia to a touchdown on its opening drive, the perfect way to exorcise any demons left over from the Alabama game. He also completed 5-of-6 passes on a momentum swinging 97-yard touchdown drive during the final two minutes of the first half.
But make no mistake. The rest of Georgia’s season began with the offensive line.
When not practicing his avocation, Denton Ashway practices his vocation with the law firm of Ashway and Haldi in Cumming.