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Post Georgia 27 – Auburn 20: Bowers does everything but stop the run

Tuesday October 3, 2023

I had a flashback to 2014. Fresh off a 29-point loss to Missouri that left them with a 3-3 record, Florida entered the WLOCP as double-digit underdogs to #11 Georgia. The Gators benched struggling quarterback Jeff Driskel in favor of unproven freshman Treon Harris. The Gators entered the game getting a decent 179 yards per game on the ground, occasionally breaking 200 yards here and there. What happened in Jacksonville was unexpected and horrifying. The move to Harris signaled an intent to go all in on the running game, but Georgia could do nothing to stop it. The Gators ran for 418 yards at nearly 7 yards per carry. Harris only passed six times and completed three. Florida ran away with the 38-20 upset. The win got Florida to bowl eligibility, and it ended up costing Georgia the SEC East title.

The enduring memory of that loss was the helplessness. Florida was as one-dimensional as an offense could get (even Tech’s option offense attempted more passes), but it didn’t matter. I had twinges of that same pit in my stomach during Saturday’s game at Auburn. The Tigers had quarterback issues, hadn’t thrown for over 100 yards in an SEC game since last season, and would rely largely on their ground game to move the ball. We knew that. Watching another one-dimensional offense put the Georgia defense off-balance was something unfamiliar and unsettling. Georgia’s first three Division 1 opponents currently all rank in the bottom 25% in rushing yardage, so our perception of the job Georgia was doing in taking away the run was skewed.

Auburn didn’t run for 400 yards on Saturday, but a Kirby Smart defense giving up over 200 yards on the ground felt about the same. It wasn’t just one area of the defense that Auburn exploited. The line didn’t allow many big gains up the middle, but there wasn’t much of a push to disrupt the RPOs that caused enough hesitation that allowed plays to develop. Linebackers were overaggressive and vulnerable to misdirection. The secondary took bad angles and allowed plays to get outside for big gains. Complicating things was the threat of Auburn’s quarterback to run. Robby Ashford was supposed to be the “running quarterback”, and he did run for 8.3 yards per carry in limited action. Payton Thorne’s contributions on the ground were less anticipated. His long rumble down the sideline on Auburn’s second possession was eye-opening, but perhaps more significant was a pair of runs on third and fourth down that led to Auburn’s first touchdown. Having to account for the running quarterbacks – who accounted for over half of Auburn’s rushing yardage – only placed additional stress on Georgia’s befuddled defense.

Maybe because of Georgia’s overall talent level and defensive pedigree or maybe because Auburn truly was one-dimensional, the Bulldog defense avoided complete collapse and made enough plays to keep the score manageable. Auburn’s two touchdown drives both began in Georgia territory after turnovers. If Georgia could get Auburn to third down, the Tigers were only 2-for-12. That wasn’t all long-yardage passing situations; the Georgia defense made some key stops on running plays in short yardage. They recovered after Thorne’s long run to get a red zone stop that forced a field goal. Consecutive stops on 3rd-and-1 and 4th-and-1 at the Georgia 12 helped preserve a tie game headed into halftime. Red zone defense had been a weakness for Georgia, but three of Auburn’s five scoring opportunities ended without touchdowns.

Auburn’s ability to run the ball might have been a bit of a shock, but it wasn’t surprising to see them play physical, hard-hitting defense. Georgia seemed to approach their offense with caution – perhaps too much caution. Yes, Carson Beck was making his first road start. The Bulldogs only had one downfield pass on their first possession – a third-down conversion to McConkey. Three straight runs at midfield which failed to move the chains might have looked like a team trying to be more physical, but it wasn’t the sign of a confident team on the attack. The second possession might have seemed to vindicate a cautious approach with Beck – he missed an open Delp streaking down the middle for a likely touchdown and then threw an interception.

But Beck responded on the next drive to answer Auburn’s touchdown with Georgia’s first score of the game. Georgia mixed some short completions with steady gains on the ground, and Edwards was able to punch it in. The passing game opened up after forcing an Auburn 3-and-out. Beck found Lovett for 13 yards and then Rosemy-Jacksaint for 26 to get into the red zone. A pair of incompletions intended for Brock Bowers forced a field goal, but Georgia was looking downfield more – and targeting Bowers – towards halftime.

Beck and the passing game took on a larger role in the second half as Georgia fought back from behind. The Bulldogs scored on three straight possessions to turn a 7-point deficit into a 7-point lead. Key third down conversions to Thomas and McConkey moved the ball to midfield, and a pass across the middle to Bowers set up another Edwards touchdown. Two more long gains by Bowers resulted in a field goal that gave Georgia their first lead. The final scoring drive started with moderate gains by Rosemy-Jacksaint and Bowers to move into Auburn territory, and Bowers finished off the drive with the kind of run after catch that’s become his trademark.

The Beck-to-Bowers connection has taken off in the past two weeks. The question, and it’s a serious one, is how to get that going earlier in games. Georgia’s slow starts have been a curiosity of the first month of the season – and it’s across the board, not just Beck. We’re seeing though in conference games how risky a slow start can be. It’s not just a question of winning more impressively. If the defense is going to be merely really good instead of elite, the offense has to have more of a role in taking control of games. Additionally, a slow start gives opponents more time to stick to their game plans and probe Georgia for weaknesses. If Georgia jumped out 14-0, would Auburn have been as patient with the running game, or would they have to begin taking chances throwing the ball? Teams that get out in front are able to make opponents predictable and uncomfortable. It’s to Georgia’s credit that they’ve maintained composure through those early deficits. Not many teams can do that, but Georgia hasn’t asked that of many opponents yet.

It’s excellent that Carson Beck and the Bulldogs have shown that they can take a punch and respond, especially in a tough road environment like that. It would be nice now to throw some punches of our own.

Extra points

  • Bowers’ touchdown is deservedly the highlight, but another play deserves mention. After Everette’s crucial pass breakup forced a punt, Georgia was pinned at their 2 yard line. The next play turned out to be Georgia’s longest run of the game. Georgia lined up with Delp tight to the left side of the line and Bowers next to him. The left side of the line held their own with a linebacker blitzing over left guard. Bowers picked up pressure from the outside. Delp was able to get the second level, and Edwards found a nice hole between Delp and Bowers. The 16-yard run earned the offense some breathing room and started them on an important 98-yard drive to tie the game.
  • Another important play? Facing 3rd and 7 in the second quarter, Auburn sent pressure. Edwards didn’t pick up the blitzing linebacker, and Beck barely got off a pass before he took a hit. Rara Thomas had to make a juggling catch coming across the field to get the first down and keep the scoring drive alive. Edwards scored two plays later.
  • Welcome back Ladd McConkey. Georgia’s most dependable receiver didn’t just have four receptions that often sustained drives; he also was frequently paired alongside Bowers. Georgia’s top two receiving threats on the same side forced Auburn to make some tough choices, and it led to some important receptions.
  • Three of McConkey’s four catches moved the chains on third down. Georgia was an impressive 8-13 overall on third down in a tight road game. Even more impressive, they were 5-7 in a tense second half. Beck converted 4 of Georgia’s final 5 third downs.
  • Ten of Georgia’s 13 third downs were 3rd and 5 or longer. Auburn had no sacks but eight tackles for loss in the game.
  • Beck’s best incompletion? On a 2nd and 2 on Georgia’s first scoring drive, Auburn didn’t flinch on a play-action bootleg. Beck, with his back to the oncoming defender, somehow sensed the pressure before he was hit at full speed and managed to throw the ball away. Instead of a 10-yard loss (or a turnover), Georgia lived to convert a short third down and sustain the drive.
  • Bowers’ touchdown makes the question moot, but I was beginning to wonder how Kirby Smart would have approached the situation had that drive stalled somewhere between the Auburn 40 and 30. It was still a tie game with around 3 minutes left.
  • This was the first time all season Georgia has forced a three-and-out on an opponent’s opening drive. Unfortunately this wasn’t an omen of the Bulldog defense getting off to a better start.
  • Edwards ran tough and had some of Georgia’s longer runs. Again, there’s no one I’d rather have the ball in the red zone. Bell though had some quick bursts for good yardage and ended up with over 6 yards per carry. Georgia ran out of some backfield formations we hadn’t seen, and even Bowers was shifted into an offset fullback for one short-yardage conversion. There’s clearly some thought going into how to use players like Bell and Bowers from the backfield. It just hasn’t yielded much fruit yet.
  • Each team had an interception in the game on similar plays. Safeties made good reads on contested balls across the middle. Neither pick was really the receiver’s fault, but you’d also like to see MRJ fight for a 50/50 ball.
  • Not that we care, but did Auburn err by not playing Ashford more in the second half? He carved up the Georgia defense after Edwards’ fumble. If Auburn saw that they could do what they wanted on the ground, why not lean into the running quarterback?
  • Special teams was better this week but still not flawless. We take Thorson for granted. His first punt gave the defense every chance to have an early impact on the game. Any miss by Woodring would have been deflating in a game this close, and it has to have been a good shot of confidence that he converted both of his attempts in his first road game. Mews wasn’t able to do much with five Auburn punts and had a near-disaster trying to field a long punt over his shoulder. But he had three decent kick returns including a 41-yard return that gave the offense a short field for its first touchdown drive. Auburn, too, was able to return a couple of kicks. Keep the touchbacks coming.
  • I wasn’t thrilled with Georgia’s playcalling just before halftime. They got the ball back on their own 12 with 1:18 left and three timeouts in hand. I understand not risking a turnover given that field position, but a short run on first down should have been the end of any ambition for a quick scoring drive. An incomplete pass on second down allowed Auburn to use its timeouts and force a punt deep in the Georgia end. Thorson got another good punt away, and nothing came of the return or the subsequent Auburn possession. Still, if Georgia isn’t going to come out attacking in that situation (and why would they?), just run three plays and take it to the half.
  • The stop-gap SEC schedule released for 2024 has Auburn slated to come to Athens. Beyond 2024 though is still up in the air, and there’s only room for one permanent rival under the eight-game schedule. This might be the last time Georgia visits Jordan-Hare for several years.

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