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Post Georgia 45 – Auburn 7: In their words

Monday November 14, 2011

So many directions we could go after such a complete and enjoyable win Saturday. We’ll let others guide our thoughts…

“We’ll see how Georgia plays when they know they have to win. I have a feeling something good is going to happen to us.”
Steve Spurrier, following South Carolina’s win over Florida

Spurrier was right and wrong. Yes, his team’s win earlier in the day and their solid 6-2 SEC record meant that Georgia absolutely had to win its final two conference games in order to advance to the SEC Championship. They would get no more help from the Gamecocks. But what Spurrier missed was that Georgia has played knowing it must win ever since that disappointing night in early September. The program and its coach have been in a must-win situation for almost a year now.

“We all knew how important this game was; we hear what everyone says…You can say you’re not thinking about it, but deep down you know what’s at stake.”
Aaron Murray after the win over Florida

So if Spurrier was trying to apply the screws, he’s late to the party. Pressure is the normal condition for any major program, but the urgency at Georgia has been especially intense since the disappointing 2010 season ended on a stormy day in Memphis. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. The survival instinct that kicked in led the staff to make some difficult but unavoidable changes behind the scenes. As Georgia imposed their will in the second half, I couldn’t help but think about the choices made and the work done in the offseason.

“We’re OK on the run game…”
– Gene Chizik, discussing his defense in his interview heading into halftime

Chizik was pleased with his run defense after the first half, but he lamented Georgia’s success on the downfield passes to the outside. True enough, Georgia struck often in the first half on back shoulder routes to the outside that were almost stop routes. Georgia hit one of these routes at the end of the Florida game, and they served Murray well again. Auburn almost always over-ran the routes even when, as illustrated by the CBS crew, there was another layer of coverage over the top.

Chizik’s confidence in his run defense was short-lived. The Bulldogs were successful running the ball right from their first possession of the second half. As a result, Auburn was limited to four drives in the second half. That’s not a good place to be when you’re down four scores to begin with. Georgia’s success on the ground meant that every Auburn drive had to produce points, and of course not one of them did.

The gold standard for soul-crushing drives remains the 11-minute monster that ended the 2002 Ole Miss game, but this weekend gave us something even better: three drives – all 10 plays or more and averaging nearly six and half minutes each. The Dawgs held the ball for over 21 of the 30 minutes of the second half. It might’ve been more entertaining to put up 50 or 60 points, but the act of watching Georgia run over and over for the entire half was thoroughly satisfying.

“I thought I went deaf for a second there.”
– Bacarri Rambo describing the noise following his interception returned for a touchdown

I was trying to think of a moment when I’ve heard Sanford Stadium louder. It’s tough. We can debate decibels, but it was one of those electrifying moments we’ve only had a couple of times in the past few years. There was no uniform gimmick. There was no coordinated celebration, just a spontaneous moment of enthusiasm after Rambo’s score.

It was a similar scene last year when Justin Houston scooped up a Tech fumble and scored. Houston’s score opened up a 14-point margin on the Yellow Jackets, and Sanford was rocking. But Georgia couldn’t maintain the momentum, and we were soon back in a one-point game. It was a similar scene against South Carolina earlier this year. Every good play was matched with a catastrophic turnover or breakdown that led to points and, ultimately, to the loss.

I won’t declare all that in the past because we’re only a couple of weeks removed from some pretty big momentum-killers against Vandy and Florida. For one night at least Georgia not only took advantage of opportunities to gain momentum; they also responded on those few occasions when momentum might be lost or even shifted back to Auburn. It started early with a strong response to Auburn’s lone touchdown. Murray was at his best, engineering a drive on which he went 5-for-5. His third down completion to a tightly-covered Orson Charles was placed perfectly, and the touchdown pass to Bennett was as good of a throw and catch as you’ll see.

Georgia remained stingy with what they allowed Auburn. There were no kickoff returns of note – itself a noteworthy accomplishment. Auburn didn’t have a chance at an onside kick after the first quarter. Georgia abandoned any notion of returning punts and gaining field position with their punt-safe defense, but that was the trade-off for closing the door on any potential fake punt. The Georgia defense also held firm after Crowell’s fumbles. Georgia scored 14 points after Auburn turnovers; Georgia’s turnovers turned out to be nothing more than speed bumps.

“You’ve got to make plays on defense this day and age. You’ve got to go stop people. To do that, you’ve got to attack them, be relentless in your effort and prepare during the week. If you do that, you have a chance to go make plays.”
– Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham

In a game full of so many big moments, you can’t really say the game turned on any one of them. Some are subtle: a favorable spot on Georgia’s very first series kept the opening scoring drive alive. Others are obvious: Rambo’s interception broke the game open. Though the game was already 35-7 at this point, I really liked what happened just before and just after halftime. If you go back to last year, this was the point in the game where Auburn flipped things in their favor. Trailing 21-14, they tied it up inside of a minute left in the second quarter. The Tigers executed and recovered an onside kick to start the second half, and soon Georgia was the team playing from behind. It was a huge 14-point swing that turned the game.

Late in the first half on Saturday, Drew Butler shanked a punt into the Georgia sideline (‘sup wid dat?). Auburn suddenly had their best field position since their scoring drive and an opportunity to grab a shred of momentum before regrouping at halftime. As Grantham exhorted, Georgia’s defense got the stop and didn’t even yield a first down. The Dawgs also held on the other side of halftime. The kickoff was a touchback. Auburn got 17 yards on one of Dyer’s few productive runs of the night, but Auburn’s attempt to open the second half with a score ended there. Georgia forced a punt and began to dictate exactly how the second half would go. Though Georgia’s drive stalled and ended with a short field goal, the Dawgs made it clear that there would be no huge swing of momentum in Auburn’s favor this year.

“We’ll hold out a little hope, but Georgia is playing awfully well now. You always have some hope. That’s a game we have no control over, so we’re not going to worry about it.”
Steve Spurrier, on his team depending on a Kentucky win over Georgia

We’ll be magnanimous and let Coach Spurrier have the final word. He’s right: Georgia’s job is unfinished. Kentucky might be the SEC equivalent of a two-foot putt, but it’s still a shot that has to be made. It wasn’t nearly against the same odds, but two years ago Kentucky left Athens with their first win at Georgia since 1977. Part of my enjoyment Saturday night was the realization that Spurrier had to sit there and watch it, and hopefully he’ll have an equally-enjoyable viewing experience this Saturday.

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