If I were to gather up my meager musical talent and write a symphony, here's how I'd do it. I'd put the peppy, whimsical part at the beginning to grab everybody's attention and get their energy up. Then I'd put the long, boring part in the middle, because, well, that's where it's been in most of the musical performances I've been to. And I'd save the soaring, triumphant part for the very end -- a big rousing finish, like.
That's not how things went down in Knoxville on Saturday night. For whatever reason, the order got completely screwed up, and the long boring part happened at the beginning -- pretty much the entire first half, really. It wasn't even the lack of scoring; I'm of the old-school SEC opinion that a 10-6 game can be every bit as tense and exciting as a 45-42 one, if not more so. But the stuff that makes a 10-6 defensive struggle exciting was curiously absent.
The first half of Georgia-Tennessee was like an SEC football game edited for viewing on a commercial airline flight: No big plays on either side of the ball, no turnovers, and the only big hit of note was Branden Smith blowing up Da'Rick Rogers on a reception inside Georgia territory -- tellingly, after Rogers had already made the first down that converted a 4th-and-8. I'll give Richt credit for going for it three times in the first quarter, which collectively broadcast the message that he wasn't afraid of Tennessee's team or their crowd. Other than that, though, the first half was like one of those episodes of "Love Connection" where both the girl and the guy seem like perfectly nice people, but despite the fact that nothing went particularly wrong on their date, they're just not that interested in seeing each other again (even if you pay for it, thanks, Chuck).
As if to atone for the first half's lack of drama, Georgia jumped the gun and went straight into the big triumphant part after halftime, scoring on a short field on their first drive of the third quarter and then hitting a gorgeous long bomb from Aaron Murray to Malcolm Mitchell that set up another TD just minutes later. Thus were the Georgia fans in attendance reminded why they still loved Aaron Murray, even after his mediocre performance the previous week -- he'd had a spotty first half, but the long pass he connected on to set up Georgia's second field goal reminded us all what he'd be capable of once he found his groove, and midway through the third quarter he made good.
Interspersed with those drives, though, the defense stepped up in a big way, and it shouldn't go unnoticed just how well they adjusted after halftime. They'd already been crushing a weak UT running game up front, but in addition to that, the Vol passing game (which every single columnist and beat writer insisted was their big advantage when predicting a Tennessee win in Saturday's Knoxville News-Sentinel) went from "competent" to "non-entity." In the first half, Tyler Bray was 10-of-19 for 160 yards, and the Vols converted four of seven third-down opportunities; in the second half, Bray only passed for 91 yards and the Vols were 0-for-6 on third downs. The spirit of "Third and Willie" hasn't been completely exorcised from this defense, but it definitely took a hit at a time when the Dawgs really needed it to.
And then, with the Dawgs holding a solid-looking two-touchdown lead and driving deep into Tennessee territory, the zany, slapstick part began at long last, and 102,000 fans heard the words "second and 56" proclaimed over a stadium PA system for the first time. Even now, I'm not sure how incensed I want to be about that.
One the one hand, yeah, it was kind of a disgraceful loss of focus for a team that was in position for the dagger-to-the-heart score against a hated rival, but on the other hand, if somebody had come up to me before the game and offered me the chance to knock out all of Georgia's holding penalties for the night in a single drive, I probably would've taken that.
And then, of course, we had Tyler Bray trying to one-up the Dawgs' comedy quotient by heaving that hilarious shotput to nowhere on the first play of Tennessee's ensuing drive, negating some fine starting field position and taking all but the very last bit of wind out of Vol Nation's sails. I don't want to throw too much dirt on Bray here, since he did manage to bring the Vols down into Georgia territory on their last real drive of the game and sacrificed a thumb bone in the process. But the Tennessee media and fan base seemed to think coming into this game that he'd almost become Peyton Manning, and at the moment it looks like he's still closer to Tony Romo: talented, hyperconfident, not a quitting bone in his body, but someone who still doesn't have the mental side of the game down enough to rise to an elite level. Like Romo, Bray is great in the games his team is supposed to win, but he has yet to prove he can keep from doing something bizarre in a big game where there's actually something on the line.
Anyway, back to the infamous 2nd-and-56: Once we'd put that little nugget in the history books, it became pretty clear that Richt had shifted into the same "I don't care if we score" mentality we saw in the second halves of the Ole Miss and Mississippi State games, which is why had eight rushes for only 10 yards the rest of the way and the final score was a homely 20-12 instead of 23-6 or something even more enticing. But in spite of the fact that this was one of the weirdest Georgia games I've ever witnessed in person, I can't get mad at Richt -- not after a weekend in which we finally exorcised our Neyland demons of recent years, and certainly not after he hit the century mark in the wins column.
Saturday's symphony made some odd choices, and more than a few of the musicians could stand to tune their instruments a bit, but Bulldog Nation will dance to it (arrhythmically, tripping over both our feet and our partners' in the process) for as long as we can.