AUBURN, ALA. — The University of Georgia has clinched many an SEC championship on the plains of Auburn. The Bulldogs of 2019 didn’t win the conference title here Saturday but Kirby Smart’s Dawgs did tuck away their third consecutive SEC East Division crown and a spot in the league championship game with a 21-14 triumph over the Auburn Tigers.
In a game that the Bulldogs manhandled the Tigers for three quarters while building a 21-0 lead going to the final period, Georgia had to survive a fierce Auburn rally that saw the Tigers put up 14 points in the final quarter to pull within a touchdown with still 7:03 remaining in the game.
But survive, the Bulldogs did … shutting down the Tigers on their final two possessions to climb to 9-1 on the season and 6-1 in the conference with the Texas A&M Aggies coming to Dooley Field at Sanford Stadium next Saturday to provide the final SEC test.
“I want to thank our fans for sticking with us,” said Smart. “I thought that they really pushed us through, and what an incredible atmosphere for us to play in. Good teams never quit, and we’ve got to do a good job of putting people away when we have an opportunity to. We have a lot of respect for Gus (Auburn coach Malzahn) and this program, their staff. A lot of friends on their staff. Their kids played really hard. Our kids were very resilient to come into this place, lose momentum, obviously lose momentum, and be able to go back out and get it, shows some fortitude and the ability to handle adversity,” he said. “I’m really proud of our guys. With all of that said, it’s on to the next one. Texas A&M has a great team, a great program and we’ve got to get better. We’re not where we need to be, but I give Auburn a lot of credit for that as well.”
Smart simply gave the Tigers the credit for their fourth-quarter comeback bid.
“They just got hot, got on a rhythm,” he said. “It’s not like we went conservative. We didn’t call different calls. We were ‘bend-but-don’t-break.’ They hit some plays. They went tempo. I thought Bo (Nix) got a little more confident. We had a couple of busts and when you combine those things, guys get hot. It wasn’t like they didn’t move it earlier, because they moved it earlier, we just had some really big stops.
“We didn’t have really big stops on the later drives,” Smart said. “We didn’t get behind the sticks. They did a good job of ‘personelling.’ Gus did a good job of searching till he found something. We didn’t have enough answers to what they were doing. Earlier in the game, we did and we kind of didn’t have enough answers when we needed it most. But I’ll say this, they went out there the last time and came up with some big stops.”
Georgia hit the Auburn secondary with an early haymaker, Jake Fromm hitting a streaking Dominick Blaylock with a 51-yard touchdown strike. That put the Bulldogs up 7-0 with 5:56 left in the first quarter.
And with the Bulldogs’ SEC-leading defense not allowing the fast-paced Auburn offense to dent the scoreboard, that 7-0 advantage stood up until just 20 seconds remained in the firsts half when Fromm hit tailback Brian Herrien with a little swing pass in the right flats for a 5-yard touchdown connection. Rodrigo Blankenship’s PAT kick was again perfect and Georgia took a 14-0 lead to the locker room at halftime.
Fromm actually worked the one-minute offense to perfection, taking the Bulldogs 81 yards in just seven plays, the drive taking only 59 seconds to complete. While the Georgia quarterback completed four passes on the quick march, the big play came when D’Andre Swift — keyed on by the quick-striking Tiger defense the night long — got loose on a draw play for 26 yards, taking the ball to the Auburn 14-yard stripe. Three snaps later, Fromm hooked up with Herrien for the score.
And when the Bulldogs blinked their advantage to 21-0 in the final 13 seconds of the third quarter on Fromm’s third touchdown pass of the night, this time a 5-yard toss to tight end Eli Wolf, it appeared Georgia was on cruise control to a relatively easy win over the 13th-ranked Tigers.
At that juncture, a few of the Auburn faithful were seen heading out of Jordan-Hare Stadium.
But no one told the Tigers themselves the game was over. When the Bulldogs’ couldn’t sustain drives with their final quarter possessions, freshman quarterback Bo Nix lit a fuse under the Auburn offense and the Tigers proceeded to stage quick scoring drives of 75 and 57 yards to trim their deficit to 21-14 and put the large visiting contingent in red and black on a bit of an edge.
The first scoring march covered 75 yards on 12 plays and was capped by Nix’s 3-yard pass to Eli Stove. The Tigers then wheeled 57 yards in just five plays for Auburn’s second score. That one came on a 2-yard keeper by Nix with the 7:03 still to be played and ended the Georgia defense’s amazing season-long streak of not surrendering a rushing touchdown.
And with the Auburn fans now turning up the volume to an all-time high, the Tigers mounted another late drive to get in excellent position to forge a 21-21 tie with the Bulldogs and likely send this game into an improbable overtime. Starting at their own 28-yard line with an even six minutes to play, Nix passed and ran Auburn down to the Georgia 34 but, on a 4th-and-2 at that spot, Nix’s screen pass to a wide-open Harold Joiner was thrown behind Joiner and the Bulldogs had stopped the Tigers at maybe the game’s most crucial moment.
But after gaining possession with just 2:24 left, the Bulldogs’ offense still couldn’t convert a first down to run the clock down and so Jake Camarda’s 11th punt of the night put Auburn at its own 27 with still another opportunity to stage a game-tying drive, now with 2:03 to go.
But, once again, with the Bulldogs now smelling the trip back to Mercedes-Benz Stadium and a shot at their second SEC championship in the last three years, Georgia’s defense stood tall one more time, thwarting Nix with three consecutive pass incompletions and then applying the dagger on a 4th-and-10 play when talented freshman D-lineman Travon Walker crashed through to sack the Auburn quarterback for a 5-yard loss.
The Bulldogs now had this one as with 1:39 remaining, Fromm took a knee three times to run the final seconds off the clock.
Although Georgia put up the three touchdowns and the Tigers managed the two fourth-quarter scores, this game was every bit the fierce defensive head-knocker it was billed to be. Georgia compiled 141 yards net rushing against an Auburn defense fronted by All-America defensive linemen Derrick Brown and Marlon Davidson and Fromm could complete only 13-of-28 passes for 110 yards, though he had the three crucial touchdown completions. And the Bulldogs limited the Tigers to only 84 rushing yards but Nix threw the ball 50 times, completing 30 of his attempts for 245 yards. And with Auburn totaling an amazing 86 plays — the most ever by an opposing offense against a Kirby Smart coached team — Auburn compiled 329 yards of total offense to Georgia’s 251 figure.
“It was a tough football game, really physical,” said Fromm. “Anytime you come in here and play this football team, you know you’re going to get their best shot. They did a really good job defensively, and our defense did a great job of stopping them on offense. We’re really thankful to come out of here with a win and clinch the SEC East.
“I think we made some really key plays when we needed them,” Fromm added. “I think our perimeter runs were good, just because there is so much weight and mass inside that box. That makes it tough running sometimes, but we pulled through.”
But, fact is, the big difference in the game was that the Bulldogs had a running back named D’Andre Swift and, the Tigers didn’t. The junior tailback ran the ball 17 times against the best defensive front Georgia has faced this season and went over the 100-yard mark again with a total of 106 … averaging 6.2 yards per carry in the process. Junior wide receiver Demetris Robertson had three catches for 20 yards while freshman Blaylock had two receptions for 50 yards, his other catch in addition to the 51-yard touchdown netting minus-1 yard. Graduate senior Lawrence Cager played only briefly at the game’s beginning, catching one ball for six yards before retiring to the sidelines with his ailing shoulder. Nix actually also proved Auburn’s leading rusher with 42 yards on 13 carries while the Tigers’ ace receiver, Seth Williams, rendered a big night with 13 catches for 121 yards.
Junior linebacker Monty Rice paced the Bulldogs’ swarming defensive unit with 10 total tackles while cornerback Eric Stokes recorded seven stops followed by cornerback D.J. Daniel and safety Richard LeCounte with six tackles each. In addition to Travon Walker’s big sack of Nix on the Tigers’ final offensive snap, also freshman defensive back Tyrique Stevenson also notched a sack. Daniel, LeCounte, Malik Herring, Walker, David Marshall, and Stevenson were all credited with a tackle-for-loss while senior tackle Tyler Clark posted two tackles-for-loss. Senior place-kicker Rodrigo Blankenship wasn’t summoned for any field goal attempts but sophomore punter Camarda turned in an excellent game by punting the 11 times for a 50.7 average, continually keeping the Tigers backed up in poor field position. His first punt sailed 67 yards and died at the Auburn 2-yard line and he had four kicks pinning Auburn back inside the 20.
Senior safety J. R. Reed was just happy to keep the Tigers out of the end zone on their final possessions.
“It feels good,” said Reed. “This is a great Auburn team. We had to come in here, and we had to fight for this win. It wasn’t given to us.”
Reed pointed out, however, it wasn’t the Bulldogs’ most complete game of the season.
“Definitely not,” he said. “We were way off from the most complete-game win of the season. There were definitely some areas where we could have played cleaner than we did.”
Now, Georgia’s senior class will be shooting for a win in their final home game against Jimbo Fisher’s Texas A&M team Saturday at 3:30, in another CBS-televised contest.
In an aside from football, the sellout crowd of 87,451 held its collective breath when Chamberlain Smith, a photography intern for the University of Georgia Athletic Association, was injured on an out-of-bounds play during the second quarter. But the good news is she was released from the East Alabama Medical Center later Saturday night.