After struggling to establish any kind of rhythm on offense in its first two losses, Tennessee found some answers Saturday in a 34-31 overtime loss to Georgia, which dropped a spot to No. 7 in the Top 25 on Sunday,
Rajion Neal followed up his 169-yard performance against South Alabama by rushing for 148 yards and two touchdowns. Marquez North made a diving touchdown catch to spark Tennessee’s rally from a 14-point halftime deficit. And although his overtime fumble proved critical, Alton “Pig” Howard had four catches for 70 yards and six carries for 46 yards.
“It hurts to lose, but you kind of have to look at the positives sometimes,” Tennessee quarterback Justin Worley said.
Worley was one those positives.
The junior quarterback lost his starting job earlier in the season and had thrown a combined five interceptions in the two games leading up to this one. Worley bounced back Saturday by going 17 of 31 for 215 yards with one touchdown pass and no interceptions.
“I have to give him credit,” Tennessee coach Butch Jones said. “How old is he? 21? How many 21-year-olds could go through the last couple weeks (what) he’s gone through.”
Worley got help from his young receiving corps.
North, a 6-foot-4 freshman, showed his enormous potential with a highlight-worthy touchdown catch in which he dove toward the left sideline while managing to keep a foot inbounds. Josh Smith, another freshman, had a 26-yard catch on a third-and-10 play to continue a fourth-quarter touchdown drive.
Howard, a sophomore, had a career-long 33-yard catch to set up North’s touchdown, though his overtime fumble overshadowed what he’d done earlier in the day.
Jones’ growing confidence in his offense was evident in his play-calling strategy. Tennessee (3-3, 0-2 SEC) was 3 of 3 on fourth-down conversions in the fourth quarter.
On fourth-and-1 from its own 34, Tennessee pitched left to Neal, who raced 43 yards down the sideline to set up his own 1-yard touchdown. When Tennessee faced fourth-and-1 again on its next series, Neal ran one yard for the first down. Later in that same drive, Worley threw a 28-yard pass to freshman tight end A.J. Branisel on fourth-and-1 from the Georgia 35, setting up Neal’s 7-yard touchdown run.
“We respect him for throwing the cards on the table and taking those chances,” Worley said.