Man, we needed that.
It hasn’t been an especially cheery time at Sanford Stadium lately, and it had been about a year since the last SEC home win. Georgia was in danger of going winless against SEC competition at home, and the Dawgs faced long odds to avoid a losing conference record in Kirby Smart’s first season.
For one night we got Sanford Stadium at its finest. The crowd was engaged from the awesome pregame flyover. Georgia connected on two early deep passes to give us hope that the Dawgs could move the ball. The halftime deficit was concerning, but Auburn wasn’t able to build the kind of lead that would take the crowd out of it. After Georgia equalized on Mo Smith’s pick six, the crowd was locked in.
The story of the game of course was Georgia’s defense. It cooled off Auburn’s red-hot offense by first limiting big plays in the running game and then choking off any kind of success when it became clear that the Tigers struggled to move the ball through the air. You hadn’t seen a half of defense like that since the 2011 SEC Championship game where Georgia held LSU without a first down in the first half. This time, though, the Dawgs were able to put their dominant second half together with a reasonably good first half and avoided the turnovers and special teams scores that led to a loss in that 2011 game.
Did Auburn have much to do with Georgia’s success? Sure, and that’s probably the case in any half that turns out like the second half did. Sean White was horribly inaccurate despite entering the game as one of the top 10 quarterbacks in the nation in efficieny. His health has been the subject of rumors before and since the game, but he was the quarterback Auburn chose to stick with. There were also a couple of drops, though no Georgia fan will have much sympathy there. Georgia’s pressure did its fair share to disrupt, hurry, and alter several of those incompletions.
I guess we can also thank Auburn’s coaches for insisting that 3rd-and-short was a passing down. On Auburn’s lone scoring drive, they faced 3rd-and-3 and 3rd-and-1. They ran both times and converted both en route to the touchdown. In the second half, Auburn faced 3rd (or 4th)-and-2 five times and chose to pass each time. The results were a sack and four incompletions. My analysis involves gift horses and mouths.
If Georgia tweaked one thing on defense after giving up 20+ points in each of the past two games, it was a more aggressive use of interior blitzes. Auburn’s struggling pass offense meant that Georgia could risk bringing the occasional blitz, and pressure from Roquan Smith and Reggie Carter in particular led to a pair of big third down stops.
The Smith interception was without question the turning point, but another third down stop in the first half kept Georgia in a position to win the game. Early in the second quarter Auburn had put together another promising drive immediately after their lone scoring drive. The Tigers faced a 3rd and 6 at Georgia’s 38, and a conversion would have at least placed Auburn in Daniel Carlson’s range. I think the outlook of the game changes if Auburn is able to score on consecutive possessions and open up a two-score lead. Mel Tucker called a Roquan Smith blitz up the middle, and a retreating White dumped the ball off in the backfield to Kerryon Johnson. Davin Bellamy was waiting and made a shoestring tackle for a 13-yard loss around midfield. Auburn punted. The Tigers managed just one more first down later in the quarter and never entered Georgia territory again.
It’s odd to praise an offense that, for the first time this season, didn’t score a touchdown. Had Auburn’s offense been more productive, we’d be dwelling on the invisible force that causes Georgia drives to stall around the opponent’s 30-yard line. But Auburn’s offense wasn’t more productive, and the Bulldog offense did just enough to make its own mark on the game.
The offense’s biggest contribution was in field position and time of possession. The best defense against an offense like Auburn’s is to keep it on the sideline. As much as we made about Auburn’s lack of second half first downs, Georgia posted only two three-and-outs in the game. No, it didn’t lead to many points, but being able to move the chains contributed to the team win:
- The offense got the Bulldogs out of the few instances when they were pinned deep on their own end.
- It allowed the Georgia defense to rest up and maintain a consistently high level of play in the second half.
- It kept field position in Georgia’s favor even when a punt or two was shanked. Auburn’s best starting field position was its own 32 yard line. Nine of their drives started with touchbacks or inside their own 25.
- It wore down Auburn’s defense to the point that Georgia was able to use up valuable clock on two second half drives that lasted at least 6:45 each. The Tigers had only three possessions after the 5:29 mark of the third quarter.
Georgia’s ability to spread the ball around stood out. Chubb and Michel got their share of touches of course. Entering the game you’d never have expected Georgia to gain more rushing yards than Auburn and for Chubb to be the only back over 100 yards. The offense did well to involve speedy receivers like McKenzie, Godwin, and Ridley – the end-around to Ridley was an effective play that got the ball outside into space. The Dawgs still found opportunities to connect with Nauta on a couple of nice shallow crosses.
Though we can quibble with individual play calls, the overall gameplan was solid. Georgia moved the ball, got the right people involved, and did just enough to capitalize on the amazing work of the defense. Credit Auburn and their outstanding defensive front for being good enough to disrupt several plays that looked as if they could go for big yardage. Linebacker Deshaun Davis seemed to be everywhere and had the awareness to stay with Eason on Georgia’s attempted trick play. But even a defense that’s played as well as Auburn’s can’t spend that much time on the field without it affecting them, and it was enjoyable to watch Georgia run sweep after sweep against a tired defense to salt away the fourth quarter.
The turning point that wasn’t
There was an Auburn punt with nine minutes left in the game that was about 30 seconds of pure horror. First Auburn lined up with 10 men on the punt team. They snuck an additional gunner in along the north sideline, and Georgia didn’t respond to cover up the additional player. The crowd began to stir as they saw an uncovered eligible receiver who could have walked for first down yardage (and then some.) Auburn fortunately executed a routine punt – perhaps they also didn’t recognize the opportunity.
Just as we were about over that little adventure, Georgia dodged another bullet fielding the punt. McKenzie was unable to field the ball cleanly after contact with an Auburn player, and Auburn would have been set up in a position to at least tie the game if their recovery stood. Counting on Saturday’s officials to make a call was a crapshoot, but they managed to flag the catch interference and save Georgia from another special teams disaster. The Dawgs responded with a 14-play drive that took nearly seven minutes off the clock that brought us to the closing stages of the game.
The statute of limitations is up, right?
I wondered about this at the game and confirmed it on the re-watch, but it sure looked as if Eason was down with one second left on the clock. I’m probably not the only one who spent the last few minutes of the game trying to figure out how Auburn would one-up Tennessee’s finish, and the possibility of a turnover and one final play for Auburn was terrifying. I’m just surprised it wasn’t even reviewed (whether initiated by the booth or the league office we got to know in Lexington.) It took a while before I could exhale and enjoy the win.
So now with two close SEC wins under their belts, you’d hope the Dawgs could build on those and finish the season on a roll like 2007 or 2012. Does this team have such a roll in them? Each win has been a close one, and the team hasn’t shown the firepower yet to put up a big score. They’ll also be challenged to get up for a couple of noon games after a big national spotlight for Auburn, and this weekend in particular will be a test of Smart’s ability to get the team focused and just as motivated as they were for Auburn. It didn’t take long for people to start mentioning the Nicholls (let alone the Vandy) game as examples of what can happen when the team isn’t sharp. We’ll see this weekend what’s come of those close games and whether Georgia can finally put a team away.