Vols inches away from upsetting Georgia

JOE BIDDLE: Sunday Notes: Nov. 1, 2014 (Image 1)

As the football sailed 42 yards over the goalpost to decide the hotly contested game, it was like a knife slicing through the Vol Nation's heart.

The Vols checked into Heartbreak Hotel after the overtime 34-31 loss became the 16th consecutive loss to Top 10 teams.

Despite the loss, this Tennessee team came of age Saturday at Neyland Stadium. They were rocking the smokey gray uniforms and battled No. 6 ranked Georgia face to face until the bitter end.

For Tennessee, it was literally a game of inches. If Alton “Pig'' Howard had maintained control of the football two seconds longer as he dived for the end zone pylon, it very well could have been a different outcome. It was ruled he lost control of the football and was a touchback instead of a touchdown.

Despite the loss, Coach Butch Jones had his team as prepared as it has been this season. They wanted to keep it close in the fourth quarter. They did more than that. They had the Dawgs on the run and matched them physically. How many games do you see a punter leave with a concussion? Georgia's did. But the experience of Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray ultimately was the difference.

Murray kept bringing his team back from the dead time and time again, despite playing without a number of key players, including running back Keith Mitchell, who was filling in for injured starter Todd Gurley.

So the signature win this Tennessee program has been seeking under three different coaches is still on hold. At times Georgia Coach Mark Richt was seen on the sideline with his eyes closed. Richt admitted serving up prayers on a number of occasions.

Jones didn't have much to say to his players in the locker room. He knew they realized they gave their all.

Instead, senior linebacker Dontavis Sapp stood up and addressed the somber Vols.

“He came up and spoke to us as a team and got everybody's heads up, so that's a big key,'' said junior linebacker A.J. Johnson. “The players know that it's not over. We've still got a season to go and keep fighting.

“It was a tough loss. It wasn't a nice locker room afterwards. Everybody was down, but we're going to get everybody up. We've got to come back hard.''

Once the tears dry, once the feeling of getting punched in the gut subsides, Jones and his team can find a measure of solace, a message of hope in the loss.

They discovered if they stay together, play aggressive and with the passion and purpose they displayed against Georgia, the future on The Hill will get brighter.

Junior quarterback Justin Worley played with more confidence in this game than any other. He made clutch play after play. His play was contagious as the Vols put up 31 points on a team known for its stingy defense.

Worley was 17 of 31 for the game, but those 17 completions went for 215 yards and three touchdowns. Running back Rajion Neal went over the 100-yard mark for the third time this season. Pig Howard became the explosive playmaker Jones has been looking for.

The Vols have a bye week before hosting another nationally ranked team in South Carolina.

“It's another step. Another building block. We need to learn how to win these football games,'' Jones said.

“I can see it evolving. I see it every day.''

Georgia taught the younger Vols what it takes to play at the top level of SEC football. It isn't easy, but then no one ever pretended it is.

Contact wkrn.com Sports Columnist Joe Biddle at joebiddle11@gmail.com.

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