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Post Georgia 21 – Auburn 14: Back-to-back-to-back

Tuesday November 19, 2019

Celebrate a championship

I get why Kirby Smart barely acknowledges the SEC East title. With bigger things to play for, it’s not a time for the team to catch its breath and reflect on the accomplishment. The biggest goal of all goes away if Georgia doesn’t build on the Auburn win and reach the postseason at 11-1. Texas A&M is an opponent that deserves and needs Georgia’s full attention, and Smart will want the team playing as if the SEC East title were still on the line. Georgia’s spot as a playoff contender is almost certainly on the line.

For fans though it’s OK to take a moment and celebrate the division title. It was something that eluded the program for the first decade of divisional play until Michael Johnson’s catch on that same Auburn field finally earned Georgia a berth to the SEC championship game. We had a six-year drought between 2005 and 2011 and another five-year span without a divisional title between 2012 and 2017. Now Georgia has won three in a row. Even more impressive, half of the SEC East titles in the 2010s have gone to Georgia. For those of us who watched as Florida piled up title after title in the 1990s and wondered when it would be Georgia’s turn, well, this is it. Enjoy it.

But now attention turns to bigger things, and that’s possible thanks to the win at Auburn. We should have known that a 21-point lead wasn’t safe: Georgia’s comeback from a 37-17 fourth quarter deficit was the only reason for there to be any drama in the 2013 Auburn game. This time the Dawgs built the big lead due to stifling defense with a penchant for getting stops and an offense just opportunistic enough to make its three scoring chances count.

D’Andre Swift rushed for 106 tough yards and went over 1,000 for the season. Jake Fromm only threw for 110 yards, but three of his 13 completions went for touchdowns. With Cager injured again and Pickens smothered, Blaylock, Herrien, and Wolf were on the receiving end of Fromm’s scoring tosses. Otherwise though it was a fairly anemic day for an offense becoming way too accustomed to lackluster showings. It’s true that the defenses have stepped up in quality, but Georgia hasn’t scored over 30 points since the Tennessee game.

Once again Georgia’s defense rose to the occasion with three dominant quarters and two big late fourth down stops to preserve the win. They forced the game’s lone turnover, sacked Bo Nix twice, and recorded eight tackles for loss. Once again they took away an opponent’s running game, and Nix had to attempt a season-high 50 passes. Those passes were effective as Nix found a rhythm against Georgia’s fourth quarter zone, but he was still held under 5 yards per attempt.

As in the Florida game, Georgia’s tackling might have been the most impressive aspect of the defense’s performance. Auburn has both size and speed at receiver, and their offense is built around big plays by its skill players. The Bulldog defense all but eliminated yards after catch, and they snuffed out the dangerous speed sweeps and similar window-dressing plays that are hallmarks of the Auburn offense. I know we’re tired of defending slants, but we’d much prefer opponents have to grind out drives. By keeping those plays in front of them and tackling immediately and cleanly, the defense is making it tough for opponents to string enough of them together to put up many points.

It also helps the defense when field position is favorable. Jake Camarda had the kind of breakout game that Rodrigo Blankenship had at Kentucky in 2016. Auburn’s average first half drive after a Georgia punt started at its own 15. I’m a little surprised Auburn didn’t do more to pressure Camarda. We’ve seen some of his shorter kicks come under duress. But with plenty of time, Camarda was booming them almost to the point of outkicking coverage. With field position at a premium in such a battle of defenses, Camarda was a true weapon.

Recruiting pays off

We know it’s important to recruit well. We’re used to the jewels of Georgia recruiting classes becoming obvious stars. AJ Green was a 5* receiver and played like it. Todd Gurley was an elite back and did elite things at Georgia. That’s nothing new. Now we’re starting to see the difference between recruiting well and recruiting a couple of top three classes. When you recruit as Kirby Smart has over the past three classes, almost the entire roster can be called on.

Look at the players who made key plays at Auburn. Blaylock doesn’t start at receiver. Jermaine Johnson isn’t a starting OLB. Tyrique Stevenson has battled injuries while other players earned time in the secondary. Coaches want to find more ways to get Travon Walker on the field, but he’s not a starter. Georgia had to go deep into its rotation at right guard, and it just so happened that former 5* prospect Jamaree Salyer was available. Georgia’s starters had big games too, but there were important and timely contributions up and down the roster. The Dawgs are able to substitute when they have to (as with Salyer), but they’re also able to substitute strategically and have incredibly talented players like Travon Walker and Adam Anderson available for the exact situations to maximize their impact.

I considered last season’s win over Auburn in Athens to be the ideal blueprint to beat Auburn and attack their formidable defense. Georgia held the ball a whopping 38:15 by converting 8 of 14 third downs. The Dawgs wore Auburn down, and eventually Swift popped the long run that sealed the win. Georgia followed that score up with a 9-minute fourth quarter drive as the Tigers had nothing left in the tank. Auburn’s defensive front might be fierce, but you don’t see a ton of depth. Florida was able to wear Auburn down earlier in the year, and sure enough a fatigued Auburn defense allowed a long touchdown thanks to several missed tackles.

The Bulldogs weren’t able to duplicate that ball control this year (far from it!), and Auburn even enjoyed a modest possession advantage due in large part to the lopsided fourth quarter. But the depth Georgia has developed helped them avoid Auburn’s 2018 fate. Even with five second half three-and-outs by the Georgia offense, Auburn’s comeback wasn’t so much a byproduct of Georgia fatigue as it was a more passive Bulldog defense. With the game on the line, the defense was able to continue to rotate in players and call on fresh true freshmen like Tyrique Stevenson on third down and Travon Walker on fourth down to make some of the biggest plays of the game.

  • The offense didn’t do much to put the game away, but the defense had its opportunities also. I’m convinced that Georgia completes the shutout if Stokes holds on to the interception in the endzone.
  • Georgia had more tackles for loss and fewer sacks allowed than Auburn. That says something about the improvement among the front six or seven this year, but Georgia’s offensive line also lived up to its billing. They didn’t win every battle against some insanely talented linemen, and no one expected them to. But they helped to limit the lost yardage plays while helping Swift go for 100+. Fromm was pressured but not smothered. They did it with the center a little hobbled and the top two options at right guard injured during the game.
  • If anything, Georgia’s offense had more problems with Auburn’s secondary. Open receivers were tough to come by (or find), and frequent third down situations allowed Auburn to bring in their own third down package. Auburn rarely brought heavy blitzes, relying on their stout line to pressure the quarterback, so the usual screens and other counters to pressure weren’t much of an option.
  • Kirby Smart was quick to credit the offensive coaches for the end-of-half scoring drive. For all of the offense’s problems, Georgia’s final possession of the first half has ended with points in each of the past three games. Maybe it’s tempo, and maybe it’s the mix of plays to advance the ball. Runs (especially draws) have figured into these drives. Clock management has been solid (it doesn’t hurt when Gus Malzahn helps you out with a timeout.) I don’t know if there’s anything there that can be extrapolated to the regular offense, but something is working.
  • Streaks come, streaks go. Georgia gave up a rushing touchdown. (As great as Monty Rice has been around the goalline, I’m sure he’s kicking himself about a chance to get Nix in the backfield.) Malzahn lost after a bye week. Kirby Smart won an SEC West road game. More important streaks live on: three in a row over Auburn and three straight division titles.
  • Next year’s game in Tuscaloosa will be challenging enough, but this win at least means that we’ll be spared the stories about Georgia’s road record against SEC West teams.
  • It’s sad that this is now the exception, but I was glad to see Georgia bring the full band and that both bands performed at halftime. I’ve said plenty about the dwindling visitor’s section, and visiting bands are a big part of the unique experience of college football.

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