Pressure. It’s every young quarterback’s nightmare and Georgia freshman quarterback Jacob Eason found that out the hard way on Saturday afternoon against the Tennessee Volunteers.
On second-and-11 from the Georgia five yard line, Eason dropped back to pass with Georgia down 28-24 after a furious Volunteers’ second-half rally. Eason was sacked by all-world defensive end Derek Barnett, fumbled the football in the end zone and the Bulldogs had to watch as Tennessee senior defensive lineman Corey Vereen scooped it up for the touchdown.
That score, plus the ensuing extra point, put Tennessee up, 28-24, and it was arguably the turning point of the game.
Actually, check that. It got even worse for the Bulldogs.
Georgia’s very next drive ended in an interception. Eason, once again feeling the pressure, was picked off by Tennessee’s Malik Foreman. It was a pass that could have very well ended the game for the Bulldogs, but Saturday’s game was one of responses.
Tennessee responded from a huge first half deficient to make it a game. And every time the Volunteers seized momentum, Georgia was able to take it back.
That seemed to be the case for good when Eason tossed a 47-yard touchdown pass to Riley Ridley with 10 seconds left on the clock. That huge throw put the Bulldogs up, 31-28, with 10 seconds to go.
In the spirit of responding though, on Tennessee’s very next play, this happened with the clock expiring:
It was a legendary finish in Athens between two SEC rivals. Unfortunately for the Bulldogs, they were on the wrong side of it and it could end up being a back-breaker in the grand scheme of the rest of the season.
“I’ve never been a part of something like that. We won the game, then next thing you know, we lost the game. It’s heartbreaking,” Georgia offensive lineman Greg Pyke said after the game. “I’m wishing we could have won but they had a good play on offense and our defense didn’t make the play. That’s just how it goes. Kudos to them on making that good play.”
Tennessee, ranked No. 11 heading into the contest, improved to 5-0 with a 2-0 conference record. The Bulldogs (No. 25), on the other-hand, fell to 3-2 and 1-2 in the SEC. With the loss, they’ve probably fallen out of the Top 25 as well.
Arguably, it was a loss that came down to pressure.
There was pressure on Georgia to hold a 17-7 lead going into half. The Bulldogs started off strong and looked like the far better team heading into halftime despite the difference in national rankings. Georgia had the home field advantage behind it and needed a win in order to bounce back from last weekend’s loss to Ole Miss. At least at halftime, things were looking good for Kirby Smart’s team.
Pressure was ever-present during the second half, though.
A week earlier, Tennessee made an epic second-half comeback to beat Florida. The Volunteers erased a 21-point deficit to snap an 11-year losing streak against the Gators. If anything, Butch Jones’ team proved it can’t be counted out in 2016, and that thought had to be looming large in the Bulldogs’ locker room at halftime.
It’s almost like that was over their heads in the second half.
To that point, after only giving up seven points in the first half to a very explosive Tennessee offense, Georgia gave up 27 in the last two quarters. The Bulldogs allowed quarterback Joshua Dobbs to complete 16-of-26 passes for 230 yards and three touchdowns (they did pick him off once). They also allowed him to rush 11 times for 26 yards and a score. All three of Dobbs’ touchdown passes came in the second half, including the game winner.
Georgia also eventually ran into the buzzsaw that is Tennessee’s defense. The Volunteers’ rush was all over Eason in the second half. He was ultimately sacked three times and intercepted once.
Had UGA’s defense held on to the win, the whole story of this game would have been about Eason’s response to pressure and the extremely clutch play he made to win the Bulldogs the game. Unfortunately for Smart and his team, that wasn’t the case, and the Bulldogs will have to live with the what-ifs for the rest of the season.
What if Tennessee didn’t come down with that Hail Mary? What if Eason didn’t turn the ball over twice in a row in the fourth quarter?
While this may come across as an indictment against Eason, it’s far from it. In five games this season, he’s proven to be the real deal for Georgia — even as a true freshman. He has a tremendous arm and has made a handful of big-time plays this season.
He’s the future of Georgia football. The same can be said for freshman tight end Isaac Nauta, who led the team with five receptions for 83 yards and a touchdown.
If the loss to Tennessee reminds us of anything, though, it’s that Eason is indeed a freshman, and freshmen quarterbacks are susceptible to pressure. Whether it’s Barnett coming off the edge or a potentially season-defining fourth quarter against a College Football Playoff dark horse, all freshmen, including Eason, are susceptible to pressure.
That’s not to say that Eason can’t rise up to the moment, because he proved that and more with his touchdown to Ridley. Consistency seems to be the main issue this season, but that’s to be expected with a freshman.
The rest of UGA’s team needs to do its part to back Eason up. Last weekend against Mississippi State, it was the offense that failed him. This weekend? It was undoubtedly the defense.
That was a Hail Mary that could have very well propelled Tennessee to the CFP. For Georgia, it all but guarantees a less than ideal finish in the SEC East.