Georgia fans have been wanting Kirby Smart to bring the Alabama brand of defense to Athens and that defense showed up Saturday in Sanford Stadium as Georgia allowed the powerful Auburn rushing attack one measly touchdown drive the game long while stunning the 8th-ranked Tigers 13-7 in an old-fashioned duel that resembled those low-scoring battles of the 1950s and 1960s.
In a week in which former UGA defensive great Bill Stanfill passed away the Bulldogs, well, performed on that side of the ball like Stanfill and his 1968 teammates did for legendary coach Erk Russell.
Get this: Georgia held the SEC’s leading rushing team, which came into the game averaging right at 300 yards per game, to just 127 net yards on 32 carries on the night. After totaling 10 first downs in the first half, the Tigers had nary a first down in the second half. They could manage only 32 yards of total offense against the gang-tackling Georgia stop unit over the last two quarters. Georgia forced Auburn into no less than six three-and-outs in the second half of play.
One big qualifier here, in fairness to the Tiger offense: They did play without their leading rusher, Kamryn Pettway, also the SEC’s leading rusher who sustained a leg injury in the win over Vanderbilt last week.
However, Pettway’s absence didn’t take away from what Mel Tucker’s defensive unit accomplished in this game. Not only did they check an Auburn offense which came in averaging 34.8 points per game to just the seven points, the Bulldog defense actually tallied Georgia’s only touchdown of the game, when senior Maurice Smith, the graduate transfer from Alabama, picked off a Sean White pass on the opening series of the third quarter and took it 34 yards to the end zone. That enabled the Bulldogs to tie the game at 7-all, and then it remained for Rodrigo Blankenship to boot field goals of 45 and 21 yards to provide the margin of victory.
No question, this was a program-defining win for first-year coach Smart as it boosted his Bulldogs to 6-4 (4-4 SEC) on the season with remaining games against UL-Lafayette and Georgia Tech at Sanford Stadium. Auburn, 7-3 and 5-2, all but saw their SEC West Division title hopes vanish with this setback. For Georgia, the victory continued its recent mastery of the Tigers as the Bulldogs have now won nine of the last 11 meetings with Auburn.
“That was more than team-wide, it was university-wide and fan-wide,” said Smart in his post-game press conference. “The crowd noise at the end impacted the game. With less than two minutes, they could not convert and that was helped by the noise. These kids don’t have any quit in them. They fight.”
Smart was especially pleased with the Georgia offense in the game’s final minutes. After Blankenship’s 45-yard field goal boosted Georgia into a 10-7 lead with 13:44 remaining, he would later miss on a 49-yard attempt but, no matter, with the defense continuing to clamp down on the Tigers, the Bulldogs took possession at their own 31-yard line with 9:13 left in the game. Behind Nick Chubb’s running and key passes mixed in by Jacob Eason, the Bulldogs marched the ball all the way to the Tiger 4-yard line before then having to settle for Blankenship’s 21-yard field goal. But what that drive did was take nearly seven full minutes off the clock as Blankenship’s kick came with just 2:25 left and gave the Bulldogs their 13-7 lead. When the Tigers could return the ensuing kickoff out only to the 14-yard line, the stadium was now in a fever pitch and the Bulldogs defense, this time, knocked Auburn out for the count by stopping the Tigers on four consecutive plays. With 1:34 to go, the Georgia offense took over at the Auburn 21 and effectively ran the clock out to nail down the Dogs’ first SEC win this season on home turf.
“That was an identity drive,” said Smart. “We challenged them to be physical. We were struggling to run the ball inside on that massive front, so we got the ball on the perimeter. We had some runs hit there.”
Smart said Smith’s pick-six at the start of the third quarter was really a momentum swinger, after the Bulldogs had some big offensive plays in the first half but couldn’t find the end zone.
“The touchdown got the crowd invigorated,” Smart said. “When Mo hit the pick-six, it got electric. It fired the defense up and inspired the offense. We got a lot of energy from that. Auburn is a run-first team and not having their big back was tough,” he said. “He’s a great player. It’s tough that he wasn’t healthy, but they ran well with the others. Our kids struck and played hard tonight.”
The Bulldogs had several opportunities to go up on the Tigers early in the game, only to see two long pass completions by Eason wasted. On the first, Eason threw a 40-yard strike to Javon Wims, to the Auburn 17. But alas, the Bulldogs’ Tyler Catalina was tagged for holding, thus nullifying the pass.
Then, later in the first quarter, Eason did complete a 57-yard pass to freshman Riley Ridley, Ridley pulling the ball in to his body one-handed and going down the right sidelines to the Auburn 15. But two plays later wide receiver Terry Godwin, taking the snap out of the Wild Dawg formation, tossed an ill-advised pass into the end zone that was easily picked off by former Bulldog Tray Matthews.
If the Bulldogs wouldn’t score, Auburn would. After the Matthews interception, the Tigers wheeled 80 yards on 15 plays with Kerryon Johnson going over from three yards out. Daniel Carson’s PAT gave the Tigers a 7-0 lead with just 28 seconds left in the period. There would be no further scoring in the second quarter; thus Auburn went to the dressing room with its one-touchdown lead.
But, in stark contrast to the first half, it didn’t take the Bulldogs long to get on the scoreboard in the third quarter. On Auburn’s first possession after receiving the kickoff, Smith picked off White’s third-down pass at the Tigers’ 34 and followed a convoy of blockers down the left sidelines into the end zone. With still 14:37 left in the quarter, Blankenship’s kick tied it at 7-7 and the Georgia faithful were now at their loudest.
From that point on, with the Tigers unable to sustain any offense whatsoever, it was a total UGA domination of the second half.
While Auburn could manage only 164 yards of total offense, the Bulldogs went for 135 rushing and 208 passing for 343 total offense. Against the Tigers’ stingy defensive front which features Georgians Montravius Adams and Carl Lawson, junior tailback Nick Chubb ran tough all night and finished with 101 yards on 23 carries. Sony Michel added 55 yards on 10 carries while freshman quarterback Eason drilled 20-of-31 pass attempts for the 208 yards, with no touchdowns but, no interceptions either. Isaiah McKenzie, who fashioned a key 20-yard punt return in the fourth quarter to stake the Bulldogs to good field position, led the Georgia receivers with four catches for 35 yards. Godwin also had four receptions for 11 yards but it was Ridley and freshman tight end Isaac Nauta who were the most productive receivers with Ridley having three grabs for 89 yards and Nauta stepping up big in the second half with three catches for 43 yards.
“We told ourselves a few weeks ago we were going to run the ball and we were going to be successful,” said Chubb, who joined the Bulldogs’ 3,000-yard career rushing club. “Since then, we’ve been running the ball very well. And our guys on defense are amazing,” he said. “We know those guys would hold them up and they did. They scored one touchdown on us, so we knew it was on us to make some plays, and we were able to do that.”
The Georgia defense was paced by sophomore linebacker Roquan Smith’s seven tackles while cornerback Malkom Parrish and sophomore defensive end Jonathan Ledbetter followed with five stops each with Ledbetter also registering a sack. Linebacker Reggie Carter also posted a sack of White while Ledbetter, Trenton Thompson, Carter and Davin Bellamy all recorded tackles-for-loss.
“We made the adjustment we needed in the second half,” said Roquan Smith. “They were hitting everything on the perimeter in the first half, so the halftime adjustment was stopping the run there and we stopped it, but I guess they continued to try to do it.”
“This makes it definitely worthwhile,” declared Maurice Smith, who said he simply read Sean White’s eyes and was in the right place on his interception score. “It’s a blessing. For me to be a part of this team and be able to help the team, I just love it. I was relieved (after the touchdown). I had been wanting to get one for the longest time and I ended up getting it and God blessed me and the defense did a great job blocking.”
Auburn coach Gus Malzahn termed the Auburn loss a very disappointing one.
“Obviously a disappointing loss, a really tough loss,” he said. “Our defense played outstanding, but our offense didn’t get it done today. It’s as simple as that. We didn’t get a first down in the second half. Give them credit, they had a good plan, but we didn’t do a good job executing and doing the things that we need to do. Third downs, 2-of-12 on third downs, obviously that was the worst of the year. We just didn’t make any explosive plays. They did a good job stopping the run and we had trouble throwing the football when we threw it. Disappointing loss, to say the least,” Malzahn repeated.
The Bulldogs, clinching the sixth win they needed for a bowl invite, will face the Ragin’ Cajuns of Louisiana-Lafayette this coming Saturday at noon before then welcoming state rival Georgia Tech to town on Nov. 26 in the regular season finale. The Yellow Jackets also had a big win Saturday, upsetting Virginia Tech in Blacksburg.