Tennessee v. GeorgiaUniversity of Georgia kicker Marshall Morgan (13) celebrates with fans after kicking a 42-yard field goal to beat the University of Tennessee in overtime at Neyland Stadium on Saturday. The Dawgs won over the Vols with a final score of 34-31.
KNOXVILLE -- Justin Worley earned himself a little bit of redemption on Saturday.
The Tennessee quarterback heard boos a week ago and struggled in the first half against Georgia, but he played perhaps the best he's played this season in the second half and nearly led the Volunteers to an upset of the sixth-ranked Bulldogs.
After completing 7 of 14 passes for 62 yards in the first half, Worley was 10-of-17 passing for 153 yards and a touchdown after halftime of Saturday's overtime loss, and he finished with more passing yards (215) than Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray.
"All of the guys are looking at me and looking to me to lead them and manage the offense," he said when asked about his play in light of the criticism he's taken this season. "We stressed ball security and playing with our habits this week. I thought myself, as well as the offense, did a great job with that."
Tennessee's offense, which is still last in the SEC in total offense (375.2 yards per game), managed just three points and 127 yards in the first half against a young Georgia defense that surrendered 38, 30 and 41 points to Clemson, South Carolina and LSU, respectively.
In the second half, the Vols ran up 277 yards of offense and drove 75 or more yards for touchdowns three times.
Tennessee turned the ball over nine times in its previous two games, including Worley's three-interception performance a week ago, but the Vols only had one turnover against Georgia, though it was Pig Howard's costly fumble as he dove for the end zone in overtime.
First-year coach Butch Jones said Worley "probably played his best game" and liked his poise.
"I thought he took some steps moving forward," he said. "We didn't turn the football over, and any time you don't turn the football over, you're going to give yourself an opportunity to win. Justin had a great week of preparation, and I give him credit.
"How old is he? How many 21-year-olds go through the last couple weeks that he's gone through? He's a competitor, he's worked exceptionally hard and I thought he took some steps moving forward today. I was extremely proud of him."
Worley was impressively efficient on third downs, particulary in the second half. For the game, the junior was 9-of-12 passing for 97 yards, six first downs and one touchdown on third downs. He also threw on target to tight end A.J. Branisel for 28 yards to convert a fourth down on Tennessee's late go-ahead scoring drive.
His scoring pass to freshmen receiver Marquez North came on a third-and-10 in the third quarter, and he threw on target to Jason Croom to convert on third down in the fourth quarter and overtime. Worley's best throw, though, might have been the 26-yard completion to freshman Josh Smith on the Vols' late scoring drive.
On third-and-10 at Tennessee's 30-yard line, Worley stood firm as the pocket closed around him, stepped up and delivered a strike to Smith, who was well covered by Georgia's Shaq Wiggins.
"I'm happy I got in a rhythm and converted some third downs in the passing game," said Worley, who added the Vols' second-half production simply stemmed from better execution. "It hurts to lose, but you have to look at the positives sometimes. A lot of it was pitch-and-catch for us, and it was good to finally get that rolling."
Since starting Nathan Peterman against Florida, Jones has backed Worley as his quarterback, though many fans want to see either Riley Ferguson or Josh Dobbs, the Vols' two true freshmen.
Multiple players have publicly said they supported Worley and had his back, and tailback Rajion Neal followed suit when asked what his quarterback proved against Georgia.
"Kind of what we already knew," the senior replied. "He can throw the ball. He's confident. He's got the intelligence to know where and when the things need to be at. I think he kind of settled in today."
The Vols hope to see the second-half version of Worley for the second half of the season after their open date this week.
"I respect Worley as a player and as a man," said senior defensive end Corey Miller, "and I feel like Worley has worked very hard week after week to try to make the reads and to try to make the right decisions as the quarterback for this Tennessee offense. I feel like it showed today that he's definitely put in the work. He played a great game today."
Contact Patrick Brown at email@example.com.
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 ...