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Post Georgia 42 – Auburn 10: Much obliged!

Tuesday October 11, 2022

Last week at Missouri we saw how early turnovers and field position could help an underdog hang around long enough to have a decent change at an upset. Saturday against Auburn we saw how the same advantages can help a heavy favorite take control of a game and roll to a lopsided win. If this young Georgia team is still finding its way, their rival from the Plains helped by making enough mistakes to help Georgia muddle through a slow start without repercussions before the Bulldogs kicked into gear.

Auburn’s not a very good team, and they’re reaching down the depth chart for a quarterback. They’re at the bottom of the SEC in turnover margin and have shot themselves in the foot all season with unforced errors. They stayed true to form in Saturday’s game. At times Auburn looked like a team playing its first game of the season, let alone its first road game. Penalties, errant throws, fumbles from out of nowhere, and missed tackles are trouble even if you’re the favorite. If you’re a 29-point underdog those same mistakes will lead to the series’ most decisive win in a decade.

The trick though is being able to capitalize on those mistakes. If a team is going to hand the game to you, let them. Missouri couldn’t pull the upset last week because they managed only one touchdown on six scoring opportunities. Georgia, for the first time in a while, was nearly perfect in turning its opportunities against Auburn into touchdowns. A failed fake punt and a punt return into Auburn territory set up Georgia’s only scores of the first half. The Bulldogs were not nearly as generous with field position as they were a week ago: with the exception of Bennett’s fumble that led to an Auburn field goal, most Auburn drives started with no better field position than their own 25. Podlesny was his usual reliable touchback-booming self, and Brett Thorson did well to pin the Tigers deep.

A failed Auburn fake punt in the first quarter opened things up after a scoreless opening period. South Carolina and Kent State executed fake punts against Georgia, but those came with both teams facing double-digit deficits and nothing to lose. Auburn tried their fake during a scoreless tie, helping to kickstart a Georgia offense that hadn’t done much in the opening quarter. Georgia only had to go 36 yards for their first score. The fake itself wasn’t a bad play, but it was poorly executed with several missed blocks. Nolan Smith made a great effort to elude a would-be blocker and make the tackle that blew up the play.

The return of Georgia’s running game was the highlight. The maligned running game and offensive line showed signs of life at Missouri by featuring more of a gap blocking scheme, and that success continued against Auburn. It wasn’t just a question of scheme – overall execution in the running game was better regardless of gap or zone blocking. It was also a breakout day for Georgia’s reserve tailbacks. With Kenny McIntosh still a little hobbled by a thigh contusion and Kendall Milton sidelined early in the game with a groin injury, Daijun Edwards and Branson Robinson combined for 181 yards and four touchdowns. Both showed patience, a burst through the hole, and toughness to break contact. Several runs ended with Georgia exerting their physical dominance and pushing the pile forward for extra yardage.

Unfortunately the story hasn’t changed much for Georgia’s passing game. The vertical passing game remains MIA and might continue to be without AD Mitchell and Arian Smith at full speed. 25 first half passing yards is the definition of playing offense in a phone booth, and Georgia didn’t really take a shot downfield until the attempt to Bowers at the end of the half. Auburn’s defensive front wasn’t as effective as Missouri’s either against the run or pressuring Bennett (though their lone sack could have been costly), but the Tigers were physical and disruptive at the line of scrimmage against Georgia’s receivers. Georgia’s screen and perimeter passing game was limited and had to find most of its passing success with intermediate routes in front of deeper safeties. Georgia didn’t need much from its passing game, but it will soon enough.

Georgia’s defense played well after allowing 22 points to consecutive teams. The poor tackling that led to Auburn’s lone touchdown was a blemish, but the defense deserves credit for forcing a three-and-out field goal attempt after an early third quarter Stetson Bennett fumble could have opened the door for an Auburn comeback. To be clear, Auburn doesn’t have a good offense. Ashford is still learning the ropes at quarterback and struggles with accuracy and decision-making. His scrambles were Auburn’s most productive plays, and he had a lot of room in front of him when he improbably dropped the ball. Georgia never sacked Ashford, but they did flush him often – I wonder if he had more throwaway passes or completions. The Bulldog defense didn’t break down and allow the kinds of big plays that Auburn used to score on LSU. If there was a disappointment, it was that Georgia couldn’t turn Auburn over more than once. Starks came close on another great play on a 50/50 ball. You’d hope for better than break-even against a team dead-last in the SEC in turnover margin.

Though losing containment of Ashford was concerning, Georgia shut down the rest of the Auburn rushing attack. No other Auburn player had a gain longer than nine yards or had over 20 yards rushing. Tank Bigsby, capable of creating tough yards of his own after contact, had just 19 yards and 1.9 yards per carry. Auburn’s fate was left in the hands (and feet) of Robby Ashford, and he wasn’t going to lead Auburn to an upset win. The state of Auburn’s offense makes it difficult to cite this performance as evidence of growth for the Georgia defense, but it would have been a sign of trouble if Auburn were able to mount a more consistent scoring threat.

  • Georgia’s response to Auburn’s field goal more or less out the game away. You weren’t uneasy at 14-3; it was more frustrating than anything that Georgia couldn’t put points on the board just before or after halftime. The 11-play, 81-yard answer was a nice mix of passes and then runs that took up nearly 5 minutes of clock. With half of the third quarter in the books, there didn’t seem to be a path back into the game for Auburn down 21-3. The only question left was the final margin. That drive was the first of four Georgia touchdowns in the final 22 minutes of the game.
  • It seems a different defensive lineman steps up each week. This time it was Zion Logue’s turn. He recovered Auburn’s fumble and, along with Stackhouse, led defensive linemen with three tackles. It was impressive watching Stackhouse trying to track down Jarquez Hunter on Auburn’s breakaway touchdown. He never had a chance, but the effort was there.
  • Oscar Delp scored his first touchdown at South Carolina, but he was involved more in this game with some nice catches – holding onto a tough pass while taking a hit from behind is a bigtime play. He was also in early as a blocker. Yes, Georgia even trotted out three tight-ends on the goal line in the second quarter.
  • It was nice to see Bennett lead the final scoring drive – he looked as much at ease running the offense with reserve players as he would with the starters. He spread the ball around to Meeks, Delp, and Bell, and Robinson added 25 yards on the ground behind various combinations of linemen.
  • Georgia’s second series showed how constrained the passing attack was early in the game. Bennett completed passes of 5, 0, and -1 yards. His first attempt longer than ten yards was a third down pass to a tightly covered Bowers. The first completion longer than ten yards didn’t come until a 16-yard play-action rollout to Washington in the third quarter.
  • Rian Davis was another player who saw more than his usual playing time due to injuries. Davis, himself slowed by injuries over his Georgia career, filled in for Smael Mondon at inside linebacker. He was active and finished second on the team with four tackles. His inexperience showed though as he was unable to make a stop on an Ashford keeper, and he got crossed up in pass coverage on a play that would have led to a big gain had Ashford been able to hit an open receiver. Overall not a bad day for Davis, and Dumas-Johnson continues to be impressive.
  • Podlesny’s missed field goal didn’t look right from the start. Bennett seemed to get the ball down, but something was off with the operation. An extra point later in the second quarter was also hooked left, but Pod looked solid the rest of the way.
  • Thorson’s 41.4 average isn’t going to win him any awards, but landing 5 of 5 inside the Auburn 20 with no returns is exactly what Georgia needed from its punt unit.
  • Cool to see Georgia use an unbalanced line for their fifth touchdown. Broderick Jones flipped to the right side of the line to give Georgia two tackles behind which to run. Jones seemed a bit confused in his assignment, and it was amusing to see a tackle go in motion, but Edwards followed the beef for an easy score.
  • Auburn’s late score was unfortunate by itself, but it was also Auburn’s first second half touchdown in Athens since 2009.
  • No question that McConkey has had his issues with ball security, but we saw why coaches keep putting him back out there for punt returns. He looks to make things happen, and he can be a big advantage in the return game. He was also, quietly, once again Georgia’s leading receiver.
  • Bennett’s long run to start the fourth quarter was a fantastic play. From my seats in the East endzone, the hole opened up as soon as Auburn’s safeties split towards the sidelines. With a nice block from McConkey, Bennett had no intention of sliding and took it all the way. The team’s reaction showed why Bennett is still out there even after a subpar first half and perhaps affected by a sore shoulder. He seemed even more in control after a little oxygen and was 8-of-10 for 86 yards on two subsequent scoring drives.

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