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Post Georgia 34 – Auburn 10: Tranquility

Wednesday October 13, 2021

Composure was a big part of the story in Georgia’s shutout of Arkansas. A spirited home crowd affected an Arkansas team playing its first true road game, and Georgia was in control 21-0 before Arkansas got a first down. The trip to Auburn flipped the script – it was time for Georgia’s composure to be tested. You heard it all week – the first true road game for Georgia since 2019. For the majority of the team, including Stetson Bennett, it was their first true road game – period. You got constant reminders of 2013 and the strange things that seem to happen on trips to Jordan-Hare. Georgia’s last two games at Auburn were a decisive loss in 2017 and a near-collapse in 2019. Georgia fans were confident that they had the better team, but there was always that unease lurking about playing…over there.

Georgia did indeed face some adversity. The Bulldogs entered the game even more shorthanded than expected. Auburn took the opening kickoff down the field, dropped a sure touchdown pass, and Georgia trailed for the first time this season. Later in the first half two senior starters, OT Jamaree Salyer and S Christopher Smith, went out with injuries. Auburn’s offense proved difficult to get off the field in the middle of the game with three straight long drives into Georgia’s end of the field, and a third quarter touchdown got the home crowd back into the game.

Georgia’s responses – as a team and individually – were impressive. Nakobe Dean’s diving interception of another tipped pass helped Georgia answer Auburn’s initial score. With one exception Georgia’s defense was able to stiffen and keep Auburn out of the endzone, even forcing two turnovers on downs. Broderick Jones and Dan Jackson stepped up to replace Salyer and Smith and played far more snaps than they’re used to. Georgia answered Auburn’s lone touchdown with a field goal drive that served to quiet the crowd and extend the lead back to three possessions. In almost every instance, Georgia kept its composure. The Bulldogs, in one of the SEC’s toughest environments, were only penalized three times.

That composure started with the quarterback. Stetson Bennett had played before limited crowds in Jacksonville, Charlotte, and Tuscaloosa, but this was his first time leading Georgia into a sold-out rival’s stadium. Bennett started slowly but avoided any costly mistakes, and he began to come to life on Georgia’s third possession. A nicely-placed 33-yard strike to Brock Bowers moved the ball into Auburn territory. He scrambled for a 10-yard gain and drew a targeting penalty to set up an easy Zamir White plunge from the 1. Bennett finished 14 of 21 for 231 yards – 11 yards per pass attempt. Big gains through the air to Bowers, Washington, and McConkey helped to build the lead before the ground game took over late.

Georgia will face a different kind of composure test now. They’ve earned the program’s first AP #1 ranking since 2008. It’s a bit silly to think that Georgia hasn’t had pressure on them or a target on their back until now. They’ve been a top 5 team, SEC East favorite, and playoff contender since the preseason. Maybe there’s something a little different about moving up one spot, and the frenzy around two decisive upcoming SEC East games will only add to the noise. So far the team has been able to maintain an even keel, and the focus on a standard – especially on the defense – has been something to behold. The stakes only go up from here.

  • We’re halfway through the season now. Georgia will face its two toughest remaining regular season opponents within three weeks, and the SEC East could be all but wrapped up by the end of the month. After the Clemson game I wrote, “The vision we all have is that the offense will round into better form as key players return from injury…The idea of a high-performing offense can’t depend on the promise of a certain player or players returning at an unspecified time at a given level of fitness. Georgia must work with what it has.” Even as injured players are cleared, we’ve seen that they’re often out of game shape and sometimes it’s best to work them back slowly. The contributions of Mitchell, McConkey, and Bowers have been invaluable to getting Georgia to this point, and of course Bennett has been a lifesaver. They’ll have to keep it up. The window for contributions from returning injured players during this pivotal stretch is narrow and closing.
  • It’s a habit I fall into often – talking about Bennett as if he’s still the former walk-on who came in off the bench at Arkansas last September. It does a disservice to the tremendous amount of work he’s put into his game. His decisions are better, he’s more poised, and there’s no element of the offense that’s off the table when he’s in the game. I still believe there’s a different level with Daniels leading the offense, but I also have great appreciation for Bennett’s growth.
  • While we’re on quarterbacks: Bennett was able to keep going after the targeting hit, but I wondered how Georgia would have proceeded if Bennett had to come out there. Beck made the trip of course, and Daniels was dressed out. At that point in the game, Georgia’s lead was only 10-3.
  • Bennett was sacked just once, and that was on an awkward rollout to the left against his natural throwing motion. He generally had excellent protection even after Salyer went out.
  • The stats tell us that Georgia finished with over 200 yards rushing, but the ground game took some time to get going. Georgia was outrushed in the first half (50 yards to 36), and Auburn had three tackles for loss. In fact, Auburn finished the half with more first downs than Georgia thanks to Auburn’s late drive just before halftime. Georgia was a paltry 1-5 on third down in the opening half.
  • Things improved for Georgia’s rushing offense in the second half. They came out intent on running the ball and set up a scoring opportunity. That success on the ground set up an easy deep shot to McConkey as defenders began to key on the run. Auburn had zero tackles for loss in the second half, and Georgia was a much better 4-8 on third down. Georgia’s tailback rotation, even without McIntosh, was able to stay fresh and rack up yards against a tiring defense.
  • There was a sense that Bo Nix would either do the improbable or implode. He did neither. He was an inefficient 21-38 aided by dropped passes. Even his interception came on a tipped pass that probably should have been caught. He did get bailed out of some poor decisions and was fortunate to escape with an intentional grounding call on Auburn’s opening drive. Nix had his moments of maddening escapability including one before halftime that led Dean and Carter to collide and take themselves out of the play. Nix is good enough to make a play or two even against Georgia’s defense, but the Bulldogs did well to contain him: Nix finished with negative rushing yardage due to four Georgia sacks and had no scramble longer than nine yards.
  • I credit Auburn’s coaches for a reasonably good plan against Georgia’s defense. They were able to move the ball, and dropped passes by open receivers are issues of execution and not scheme or gameplan. Georgia had a role in ending many of those drives, and Georgia’s pressure might’ve forced some throws to be less accurate or with more pace than Nix might’ve liked. Auburn was going to struggle with its running game largely held in check. There were still more than a couple of times when you sense that Georgia’s defense dodged a bullet.
  • I get Auburn’s decisions to go for it at the end of some of their longer drives. You’re not often going to pull the upset with field goals. But a couple of field goals from a capable kicker could have tightened the score and kept the crowd engaged, and Auburn’s third quarter touchdown would have made it a one-possession game. Coming up empty so many times, especially before halftime, had to be a little demoralizing.
  • Mitchell and McConkey made fantastic moves on their routes on two key receptions. McConkey broke open on his first long catch on a stop-and-go move. Mitchell’s cuts in close quarters at the goal line against an experienced cornerback were deadly – as good as it gets. Georgia’s coaches have done well to get these young receivers, not to mention Bowers, performing at a high level.
  • I mentioned Broderick Jones earlier. He’s gained experience as a reserve this season, but he really seemed to benefit from additional playing time with the first unit. That’s not to say the offense didn’t miss Salyer, but it might give coaches confidence to give Jones more playing time and adjust the line as needed.
  • The 24-point win was the biggest Georgia win in Auburn since a 38-0 shutout in 2012. That was a Georgia team that finished on the cusp of a national title, and Auburn’s squad had packed it in at the end of the Gene Chizik era. Auburn was on the other side of a coaching transition this time, but Georgia again looks to be a title contender. Georgia has taken control of the series with 14 wins over the past 17 meetings – a fact that is both delightful and absurd to any Georgia fan who grew up with memories of this series in the 80s and 90s.

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