KNOXVILLE — Jonathan Crompton enjoyed a career day throwing the football. The Tennessee defense put together the type of performance seen once in a lifetime.
It added up to a resounding 45-19 win for the Volunteers over Georgia on Saturday.
“We knew we had to show the world that we can play and show the world that we’re for real, we’re not a game, we’re not a joke,” Tennessee linebacker LaMarcus Thompson said. “Because people start to follow off that, thinking, ah, Tennessee they’re nothing, they’re just the same as they were last year. But we work hard. And this team has worked hard. And we showed that today.”
Especially on defense. Georgia’s offense amassed a modest 241 total yards and never even advanced inside the red zone. The Bulldogs returned a kickoff and an interception for their two touchdowns.
“It’s very obvious that their team was the better team today,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said.
“I don’t know that I’ve ever been a part of a game that the defense didn’t let a team into the red zone one time,” said Vols coach Lane Kiffin, who notched his first win over a Southeastern Conference opponent.
Crompton’s never been part of a game like this, either.
The Vols’ embattled fifth-year senior quarterback threw for a career-high 310 yards on 20-of-27 passing. He fired four touchdown passes: three during UT’s 21-point second quarter and another on a beautiful 51-yard bomb to Gerald Jones at the end of the third to give the Vols a commanding 38-19 lead.
“Jonathan Crompton can play football,” Vols offensive guard Jacques McClendon said. “Coach Kiffin and all our coaches are paid millions to make decisions. And they made the decision to stick with him. And this is what they saw. And this is what they’re going to get.”
UT had 472 yards of offense and tallied 24 first downs in 64 plays.
“You can feel it coming on from back in the spring,” receiver Denarius Moore said. “We’ve worked too hard to not have a good season. It’s bound to come sooner or later.”
The first quarter ended scoreless, but defensive end Chris Walker’s interception off a tipped Joe Cox pass toward the end of the frame gave the Vols a spark. Crompton put UT on the board with 13:10 showing in the second quarter on his 6-yard pass to Gerald Jones.
On the TD, Crompton used play action, then rolled out to the weak side to hit Jones.
It proved to be a variation on a theme. The Vols’ third TD drive saw Crompton make a similar fake and roll out on three of the four passes he completed on the possession — a 5-yard scoring strike to Marsalis Teague included.
Crompton said the frequent rollouts were just part of the week’s game plan.
Those scores sandwiched a spectacular play by Moore, who took a short pass from Crompton and dashed down the sideline. A defender closed to force Moore out of bounds as he neared the end zone. Moore leapt and, as his body sailed out of bounds, he reached to make sure the ball crossed the plane of the goal line. Replay upheld the TD.
“Yeah, that’s how we planned it,” Moore said with a laugh.
Georgia hung around, thanks in large part to continued breakdowns in the kicking game. Brandon Boykin helped the Dawgs tie the score immediately after Jones’ first TD, returning the ensuing kickoff for his second 100-yard touchdown of the season.
Then, with 23 seconds to go before the half, the Bulldogs blocked Chad Cunningham’s punt for a safety, making it a 21-12 game at the break.
Kiffin called the Vols’ special teams play “pathetic.”
The continued struggles of the Georgia offense, however, ensured there would be no comeback. UT’s defense made sure of it, generating four turnovers on two fumbles and two interceptions.
“With our defensive scheme, if we get a lead, they can kind of do what they want to do,” Crompton said. “And that’s when the turnovers come and the big plays come.”
Montario Hardesty finished just shy of the century mark with 97 rushing yards, but reached the end zone on a 39-yard sprint in the third period that came immediately after Bacarri Rambo’s 28-yard pick-six of Crompton.
Hardesty has a TD in every UT game this season.
The Vols still have half a season to play following next week’s open date, but Kiffin hoped his team set a precedent in what the coach called Tennessee’s primary rivalry because of the recruiting battles with the Bulldogs over talent from Georgia.
“Coach said this one was going to be for our seniors,” Hardesty said. “He wanted to start a trend of always beating Georgia.”
And at least one fellow senior felt the way the Vols got it done sent a message to the Bulldogs.
“Most definitely,” UT offensive tackle and Georgia native Chris Scott said. “They know they got to strap their helmets tight. Because it’s coming hard.”