ATHENS, Ga. — Todd Gurley shook off a couple of defenders in the backfield, built up speed down the sideline, and saw another would-be tackler in his path.
The Georgia running back could’ve lowered a shoulder. He could’ve stepped out of bounds. Instead, he channeled his former days as a high school hurdler.
Up and over he went.
“I don’t know how high Todd got on that thing,” coach Mark Richt marveled. “That was pretty impressive to see right there in front of you. You just shake your head and go, ‘Wow.’”
There were plenty of wow moments Saturday, and the No. 12 Bulldogs needed every one of them. Gurley rushed for a career-high 208 yards and two touchdowns, including a 51-yarder in the fourth quarter, as Georgia held off gritty Tennessee for a 35-32 victory.
The lackluster Bulldogs (3-1, 1-1 Southeastern Conference) struggled mightily with the Volunteers for the second year in a row. Tennessee (2-2, 0-1) wouldn’t quit, even after Jalen Hurd fumbled a handoff and Josh Dawson fell on it in the end zone for a Georgia touchdown with 4:27 remaining.
Having Gurley made all the difference. This was a performance that will ramp up his Heisman hopes even more, eclipsing his previous career high of 198 yards in a season-opening victory over Clemson.
His scoring burst down the middle of the field with 9:31 left was huge, giving Georgia a 28-17 lead. But it was that 26-yard run — the one where he took the high road — that left everyone amazed.
For Gurley, a champion hurdler in high school, it was no big deal.
“It’s cool to look at those plays,” he said. “But I like to look at the stuff that I didn’t do right. I had several plays that maybe could’ve been touchdowns. I need to get better on that.”
He’ll get no complaints from the Bulldogs, who rallied from an early 10-0 deficit to beat Tennessee for the fifth year in a row, matching their longest winning streak in the series.
“It’s pretty special,” said Georgia quarterback Hutson Mason, who had a rough afternoon. “He’s just a big freak running around out there with a lot of athletic ability.”
Tennessee has lost 21 straight road games against ranked teams. The Vols might have pulled off the upset if senior quarterback Justin Worley had not been sidelined for three possessions in the second half with an elbow injury.
Worley completed 23 of 35 for 264 yards and three touchdowns, leading a pair of touchdown drives after he re-entered the game in the final period.
“He’s a tough leader,” teammate Jason Croom said. “He can play through anything.”
Worley hooked up with Pig Howard on a 31-yard touchdown, followed by a two-point conversion pass. Worley then went to Marquez North for a 6-yard score that pulled the Vols within a field goal with 2:14 remaining.
But Georgia recovered an onside kick and Gurley, appropriately enough, picked up the clinching first down on his 28th and final carry of the game.
With that, the Bulldogs breathed a big sigh of relief, much like they did a year ago when the Vols took them overtime in Knoxville before losing 34-31.
Tennessee jumped ahead on Aaron Medley’s 46-yard field goal and a 1-yard touchdown by Hurd, who finished with 119 yards on the ground.
The Bulldogs appeared to be in control after three straight touchdowns put them ahead 21-10. Mason scored on a 3-yard bootleg, Gurley scored his first TD with a Herschel Walker-like leap over a pile at the goal line for a 1-yard score, and freshman Nick Chubb hauled in a 20-yard touchdown pass with just 1:17 left in the half.
The Vols, in a sign of things to come, raced down the field on an 83-yard drive that took less than a minute, capped off by Worley’s 23-yard touchdown pass to Croom that made it 21-17 at the break.
Both teams were sluggish in the third quarter, the Bulldogs curiously attempting to open up their passing game without much success, while Tennessee staggered after Worley left the game after slamming his elbow off a Georgia player’s helmet while throwing a pass. Backup Nathan Peterman botched an attempted handoff with Marlin Lane, ruining a drive for a possible go-ahead touchdown, and was called for intentional grounding.
Mason threw for just 147 yards and had his first two interceptions of the season.
X-rays on Worley’s elbow were negative and he returned to the game in the fourth, setting up a wild finish in which the teams kept trading touchdowns before the clock finally ran out.
“This was very disappointing,” said Butch Jones, Tennessee’s second-year coach. “Every individual in this organization believed we were going to win.”