ATHENS, Ga. — Tennessee completed one uphill climb.
The incline got steeper, but the Volunteers kept coming time after time.
Reaching the precipice proved to be too much in the end.
After rallying from a 17-point second-quarter hole and a two-touchdown fourth-quarter deficit, the Vols came up short with consecutive turnovers on three potential game-tying possessions in the fourth quarter of a wild 51-44 loss at fifth-ranked Georgia on Saturday.
"We kept hanging in there, but we never could get over the hump," said Vols coach Derek Dooley. "I've always believed these guys had some fight in them. It's everybody else who didn't, but you've got to go out there and prove it.
"We got hit by a freight train early in the game. We were on our heels, but we kept playing. You find your way back in the game."
Georgia rolled up 234 first-quarter yards, and freshman tailbacks Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall gashed the Vols' defense for 179 yards on 12 carries with four touchdowns, including runs of 75 and 51 yards, in Georgia's first five possessions.
Yet the Vols chipped away at a 27-10 deficit with some timely turnovers created by the defense. A.J. Johnson scooped up Aaron Murray's fumble, which Herman Lathers forced, inside Georgia's 10. Darrington Sentimore recovered a Marshall fumble forced by Curt Maggitt.
"We just kept telling ourselves we believed that we was going to win this game and just playing for 60 minutes," said safety Byron Moore, who returned his fourth interception of the season for Tennessee's first touchdown. "We never looked at the scoreboard and just kept sawing wood. We came up short — it's just the way it goes.
"We're maturing each game. Each week we're learning something new about ourselves. Coach Dooley said he was proud of us for fighting for 60 minutes and never putting our heads down."
Tennessee scored 20 points in the final five minutes of the second quarter to take a brief 30-27 lead before Georgia tied the game to cap a wild first half.
"It was exciting," tailback Rajion Neal said. "It was crazy. You couldn't believe some of the things that was happening, but one thing I just can't be mad at is us as a team, we fought. You could see those guys giving up plays, but they was coming right back.
"It was a dogfight. I was excited to see the defense work like that. I was excited to see the offense keep pushing, but some things just didn't go our way. We had a couple of little mistakes, but that was a crazy game."
When the Bulldogs scored twice to open the second half, the Vols responded with a scoring drive. Georgia doled out one more big punch on Marshall's 72-yard touchdown sprint to push the Bulldogs past the 500-yard and 50-point marks. Tennessee missed a short field goal down 51-37.
Yet Tennessee pulled within seven with an impressive 13-play drive that finished with seven running plays. A defense that allowed 538 yards through three quarters buckled down with stops on four straight three-plays-and-out possessions. Georgia had just 22 fourth-quarter yards, and Tennessee's offense took the field twice believing it would tie the game.
"We wanted to score and tie the game and even go into overtime," receiver Justin Hunter said. "I think we can play with any team in the nation, as long as we keep our head up high. We keep working and playing for 60 minutes, we can do whatever we want to."
Turnovers doomed Tennessee's hopes of completing a comeback. Quarterback Tyler Bray threw off his back foot with pressure coming off the edge, and Georgia's Sanders Commings jumped in front of Cordarrelle Patterson to intercept the pass. The Vols were inside Georgia's 30 when Bray was stripped as he stepped up in the pocket.
"Everybody is disappointed," right tackle Ja'Wuan James said. "We always wanted to get a win, but I'm proud of our team. I feel like we matured and fought all four quarters.
"We've just got to learn how to finish games."
Tennessee players believed they responded better to adversity than they did against Florida, when the Gators closed the game on a 24-0 run as the Vols went into a funk on offense and defense.
"The loss is not what we wanted, but we learned a lot about ourselves tonight — that we can fight and go toe-to-toe with a top-five team," receiver Zach Rogers said. "That's what we've got to show and continue to do. We're believing in each other more and more every day. That's finally what kind of clicked for us."
Dooley lamented the Vols' porous run defense, but the coach was visibly proud of how his team performed Saturday afternoon.
"There's never been a game where you can have more adversity than we hit, so we at least showed that we've got a little resiliency in our ballclub," he said. Now we've just got to learn how to win it. We're going to have a lot of opportunities to do it.
"They left out of here a better team than when we got here."
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...