NASHVILLE, Tenn. ‚Äî Quarterback Aaron Murray passed for three touchdowns, and Georgia‚Äôs running backs held onto the ball. The Bulldogs‚Äô defense limited the Commodores to 21 points on offense and intercepted three passes.
But special-teams miscues again threatened to end Georgia‚Äôs winning streak on Saturday, twice bringing the Commodores close to the Bulldogs‚Äô tenuous leads before Georgia used a late Bacarri Rambo interception to hold on for a 33-28 victory at Vanderbilt Stadium.
It was enough to bother Georgia coach Mark Richt, who said Saturday‚Äôs special teams play marked a step backwards in the team‚Äôs progress.
‚ÄúI‚Äôve been worried about (special teams), and the last couple of ballgames we kind of settled things down,‚Äù Richt said. ‚ÄúWe were playing very good, steady special teams. I don‚Äôt know if we were necessarily winning with special teams, but we definitely weren‚Äôt losing because of it. And then tonight happens.‚Äù
Of Vanderbilt‚Äôs 28 points, special-teams plays were pivotal in scoring 14 of them. Vanderbilt‚Äôs first touchdown was set up by a 35-yard fake punt play in the first quarter, and the second came on a 96-yard Andre Hal kickoff return in the third quarter.
Vanderbilt gave itself two opportunities to score the game-winning touchdown when, with less than 10 seconds remaining in the game, it blocked a Georgia punt and took over at the Bulldogs‚Äô 20 before stalling at the 16 two plays later.
‚ÄúThere were definitely some mistakes tonight, some miscommunications,‚Äù Georgia special teams player Kosta Vavlas said.
At each opportunity, Vanderbilt took advantage.
Georgia had a 10-0 lead on a first-quarter Blair Walsh field goal and a second-quarter Tavarres King touchdown catch, and the Bulldogs appeared to have pinned down Vanderbilt in its own red zone and forced the Commodores to punt for the fourth time.
But Vanderbilt picked up a first down and crossed midfield on on a fake-punt passing play hauled in by Andrew East, who was finally brought down at the Georgia 43-yard line by Michael Bennett. Just two plays later, Vanderbilt used some more trickery to score on a 43-yard pass from running back Zac Stacy to Jordan Matthews.
Richt said the blame for that play rested more on his playcalling after a Vanderbilt line shift than missed assignments.
‚ÄúAs soon as (Vanderbilt) shifted, I should have called a time-out,‚Äù Richt said. ‚ÄúMy gut said call a time-out. I basically asked, ‚ÄòAre we good?‚Äô It happened real fast, and really at that point, as soon as they shifted, I should have called a time-out.‚Äù
Shortly after the midpoint in the third quarter, Georgia built a 16-point cushion on Walsh‚Äôs third field goal, but the Commodores closed the gap as Hal returned a kick 96 yards in 16 seconds, marking the first kickoff return for a score this season against the Bulldogs.
‚ÄúI guess (Hal) just found a good hole,‚Äù Vavlas said. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs a team; it‚Äôs not just one person, so I bet all of us did something that we could have fixed, and it added up to that.‚Äù
With two weeks before the Bulldogs play Eastern Division rival Florida in Jacksonville, there was hope Georgia could repair its special-teams woes, Vavlas thinks.
‚ÄúI think we improved well last week, and it‚Äôs just a thing you have to keep working on, I guess,‚Äù he said. ‚ÄúWe‚Äôre going to get it fixed. We‚Äôre going to keep working hard at it and fix all the little things to be ready again two weeks from now.‚Äù