If the Kentucky game last week was Mike Bobo’s magnum opus for this season, Auburn was Jeremy Pruitt’s. The Georgia defense has played statistically better games and shut out two other opponents, but they’ve never come up so big against an offense of the quality they faced on Saturday. With nearly everyone expecting a shootout, this was instead every bit the overwhelming Georgia win that we saw the last time an Auburn team running the Malzahn offense visited Athens in 2011.
At the risk of sounding nonchalant about another stellar rushing performance, Georgia’s offense lived up to their end of the shootout. It would have been news if Chubb and Gurley weren’t spectacular. They didn’t score quickly with explosive plays (not for lack of trying), but it was more of a steady, consistent buildup towards the final score. Once Georgia got the opening they needed thanks to a fumbled punt return, the Georgia running attack began its stranglehold on the game. Blocking on the edge was excellent from the tackles, fullbacks, tight ends, and receivers, and a national audience now knows who David Andrews and Greg Pyke are.
Georgia was able to take a more deliberate approach to its offense as the game wore on thanks to the defense. Everyone buckled up for the anticipated track meet following Auburn’s opening drive, but the Georgia defense started making stops. There were several big moments for the defense, but the most important might have been Auburn’s second possession. Auburn’s early success and the bad breaks and penalties that cost Georgia three scoring opportunities on their first possession had me a little concerned that we’d soon be looking at 14-0 and digging out of a hole for the rest of the game. After moving the chains, Auburn got seven yards on a first down carry to set up 2nd and 3 – a distance which is almost an automatic conversion for this offense. Instead, Georgia stuffed Cameron Artis-Payne on second down and stopped him just short of the marker on third down. Facing 4th and 1 from their own 37, I was honestly surprised when Malzahn sent the punter out. The Dawgs won a small victory against this offense, and Auburn didn’t cross midfield again in the first half.
It’s water under the bridge now, but things really did seem to hang in the balance midway through the first quarter. You can see Georgia’s slow start in the win probability, and no points from their first two possessions didn’t bode well when we all expected that Georgia would have to keep pace in a high-scoring game. That first defensive stop and then the fumble recovery gave the offense the cover and then the spark they needed to post three straight scoring drives to end the half and gain control of the game. Most of us expected Auburn to catch fire at any time and get back into the game, but the Georgia defense did an outstanding job of making sure that never happened.
- The line had one of its best games occupying blockers so that the next level of defenders could, in the words of Mark Richt, “clean up.” The skill players often get the credit in an explosive offense, but we saw how important a dominant lineman like Greg Robinson was for Auburn. Florida’s offensive line was able to push the Georgia front around, and Auburn wasn’t. There’s more to the defense than that, but it’s an essential starting point.
- With the line doing its job, the linebackers had to actually make the stops. Last year Ramik Wilson had a remarkable 18 tackles at Auburn. He was a little less productive this year, but he and Herrera still combined for 20 tackles. Herrera, with 12 tackles, one tackle for loss, and an interception, was outstanding.
- Pruitt addressed three problems by using Leonard Floyd at times in the “star” role usually played by a defensive back. First, he found a way to get Jenkins, Carter, and Floyd on the field and use that abundance of talent and speed at outside linebacker to counter Auburn’s elite skill position talent. Second, the move changed the nature of Floyd’s assignment – he was less responsible for containment, something with which he struggled against Florida. Third, the move shored up Georgia’s lighter back five by putting a 6’4″ 230 lb. outside linebacker where we usually see a 6’0″ sub-200 lb defensive back.
You can see the results in the stats: last year, two of Georgia’s top four tacklers against Auburn were safeties. This year, only one of Georgia’s top five tacklers (Swann) was a defensive back. Jordan Jenkins from the outside and Toby Johnson from the inside each accounted for six tackles. With Herrera and Wilson cleaning up what got past the line, there was a lot less pressure on the secondary to provide run support.
Auburn really missed leading receiver Duke Williams. Not only did his injury limit what Auburn was able to do downfield – they didn’t complete a pass longer than 20 yards until garbage time – but the diminished passing threat let Georgia risk Floyd at star to bolster the run defense where he might’ve struggled in pass coverage. Auburn was able to hit a few passes in the middle of the field to move the chains, but the deep balls that had been so effective for them earlier in the season weren’t there.
Just a few more things…
- The staff let us know right away that we wouldn’t see a repeat of the timid approach to the Florida game. They surely anticipated a higher-scoring game as well and came out swinging. It wasn’t just the fake punt (really nice play, by the way). The deep pass to McKenzie on third down was a high risk/reward play. 15 of Georgia’s 19 pass attempts came in the first half, and several of them were shots into the endzone.
- Georgia’s two most exciting plays of the night were touchdowns that were called back. Gurley’s kickoff return put a cattle prod to a crowd that had been deflated by Auburn’s first score, and the crowd had no reason to pipe down for the rest of the game. Chubb’s touchdown-that-wasn’t was the kind of individual highlight that moves a guy from the Best Supporting Actor category to leading man status. Chubb paid homage to that effort with another tackle-shedding stroll on the final touchdown of the night.
- Going back to Chubb’s touchdown-that-wasn’t, the play featured Chubb and Gurley in the backfield. We had seen that earlier in the game with Chubb at the fullback spot in an I-formation, but on this play each flanked Mason in the shotgun. Gurley sprinting to the left drew a lot of attention, and Chubb was open on the middle screen with a path down the right sideline. It was a very nice play that took advantage of the attention that must be paid to Gurley while getting the ball to Georgia’s other backfield weapon.
- Malcolm Mitchell’s two catches for 13 yards might be the most unassuming significant contribution of the night. With other receivers struggling to hold onto the ball, Mitchell came up with two very difficult catches that led to 14 of Georgia’s 17 first half points. Mitchell’s touchdown reception came on a quick slant where the safety leaned inside just long enough for Mitchell to come open underneath the cornerback. Georgia needed a play to cash in on Auburn’s fumble and tie the game, and they turned to their best receiver. It took a perfectly-thrown pass, and Mitchell still took a good hit before falling into the endzone. Mitchell’s second catch didn’t score points or even move the chains. On 3rd and 7, Mason was flushed from the pocket and rolled right to avoid pressure. I thought he was trying to throw the ball away, but he found Mitchell low and along the sideline to pick up six yards. That tough completion turned a sure field goal attempt into a fourth down decision for Mark Richt, and Nick Chubb soon thundered into the endzone to give Georgia a 7-point lead.
- Malkom Parrish started the game with a big hit on the opening kickoff and all but finished the game with a forced fumble. It was more of him than we’ve seen in a while, and it’s always a good thing to have a guy in the secondary who likes to hit. And if we’re talking about hitting, it’s a joy watching Tim Kimbrough make tackles. Every time.