ATLANTA ‑ Well, ain’t revenge sweet!
The Georgia Bulldogs not only avenged their earlier 40-17 loss to the Auburn Tigers here Saturday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium but ran the 2nd-ranked Tigers out of the new facility with a 28-7 pounding of the Plainsmen.
Thus, these 2017 Bulldogs, in just their second year under head coach Kirby Smart, have delivered Georgia its first SEC Championship since 2005 and are ticketed for their first trip to the College Football Playoffs. The 12-1 Bulldogs now await Sunday’s selection of the final four playoff teams with Georgia’s destination to be either the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif. or the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans.
And it was a mere freshman and an All-American junior, namely quarterback Jake Fromm and inside linebacker Roquan Smith, that dealt the most deadly blows to the staggering Tigers, who couldn’t complete the trifecta of whipping Georgia twice and Alabama once.
Fromm, frustrated greatly by the Auburn defense back on Nov. 11, was superb in guiding the attack in the game that counted the most. He completed 16-of-22 passes for 183 yards and two touchdowns, to Isaac Nauta and Terry Godwin, and also hit Godwin on a 2-point PAT pass. And all Smith did was put up his usual performance, recording 13 tackles, one sack, two tackles-for-loss and, get this, the junior recovered two fumbles to halt Tiger drives. Oh, and Smith also had two quarterback hurries for good measure.
Needless to say, Roquan Smith was an easy choice for the game’s Most Valuable Player award but then, he had plenty of assistance on both sides of the ball as the Bulldogs handed the Tigers a truly woodshed whipping.
The game was eerily similar to the start of the first Georgia-Auburn contest except, this one was a reverse situation. This time it was Auburn going down the field on the opening drive – just as the Bulldogs did at Jordan-Hare Stadium — and taking a quick 7-0 lead. Of course it was all Tigers after Georgia’s opening touchdown in early November and in the title game, it was all Bulldogs the rest of the game here after the Tigers’ score on an 8-yard pass from Jarrett Stidham to Nate Craig-Myers.
With 10:14 left in the second period, Fromm capped a 7-play 84-yard drive with a 2-yard touchdown strike to a wide-open tight end, Isaac Nauta. Rodrigo Blankenship’s kick knotted the count at 7-7 and the Bulldogs, continuing to “keep chopping.” never trailed the rest of the night.
Late in the quarter, Georgia marched down to the Auburn 2 and seemingly went up 13-7 when Fromm found Godwin on another 2-yard scoring pass in the left corner of the end zone but, alas, the refs whistled wide receiver Javon Wims for offensive pass interference and with the ball placed 15 yards back at the 17, the Bulldogs had to call on Blankenship for the 27-yard field goal.
With the ball-pursuing defense refusing to let the Tigers on the scoreboard the rest of the evening and the Georgia offense really taking over the line of scrimmage, the Bulldogs turned the game into a runaway over the final two quarters, much to the delight of all those fans in red and black who rocked Mercedes-Benz from opening whistle to closing gun.
But Auburn did keep it a game until the opening minutes of the fourth period. Blankenship’s second field goal, this time from 35 yards, put Georgia up 13-7 with just 1:26 left in the third but then when Lorenzo Carter forced a fumble by Kerryon Johnson early in the fourth and Smith scooped up the ball and rumbled to the Auburn 39, the Bulldogs then proceeded to cover the 39 yards in just four plays. Fromm got his second touchdown pass, that counted, when he passed seven yards to Godwin, who snatched the ball in over a Tiger defensive back. With Georgia opting to go for two points on the PAT, the same combination hooked up on a pass to the right end zone corner and the Bulldogs were now up 21-7 and sensing the conference championship with still 13:06 left in the contest.
After the defense again slammed the door on Auburn’s offense, Georgia put the nail in the Tigers’ coffin when freshman tailback D’Andre Swift, teaming with starter Nick Chubb after Sony Michel exited the game with a knee injury, swept around the left side, found an opening in the Auburn defense and raced 64 yards for the touchdown. Blankenship’s final PAT blinked the board to 28-7 with 10:34 to play and that was the precise time the Tiger fans began streaming for the exits. With Chubb, Elijah Holyfield and Swift then continuing to bull through the tiring Auburn defense for key first downs, Georgia would run clock the remainder of the final quarter.
Although star tailback Johnson wasn’t 100 percent due to his shoulder ailment – limited to 44 yards on 13 carries – it was still remarkable that the Bulldog defense held this Stidham-led Tiger attack to just the early touchdown, 114 yards net rushing and 145 yards passing, for a meager 259 yards of total offense. In addition to Smith’s sterling performance, Lorenzo Carter had six tackles, the forced fumble and a half tackle-for-loss, junior outside linebacker D’Andre Walker had two tackles-for-loss and a sack of Stidham, senior Davin Bellamy contributed one sack, one tackle-for-loss and also forced Stidham to fumble, with that man Smith getting the first of his two recoveries. And junior defensive tackle DaQuan Hawkins-Muckle came up big in the third quarter when he blocked a 31-yard field goal attempt by Daniel Carlson, which would have tied the game at 10-10. Dominick Sanders recovered the ball for the Bulldogs and ran it back for 12 yards.
And offensively, while Fromm was on target most the night with his air game, the Bulldogs also rushed for 238 yards, making amends for the measly 48 net yards they were held to in the regular-season tilt. So with Fromm’s 183 passing, that’s a total of 421 yards Georgia compiled against the Tiger D.
Swift, thanks to his 64-yard scoring jaunt, was the leading rusher with 88 yards on seven carries. Chubb, the SEC’s all-time second-leading rusher behind a rather other notable UGA tailback, went for 77 yards on 13 carries and Michel added 45 in seven attempts before his injury. Godwin paced the receivers with 48 yards on five catches while Mecole Hardman had four receptions for 67 yards, including a key 34-yard catch in the Bulldogs’ first scoring drive. The Tiger defense did check Wims, Georgia’s leading receiver, without a catch.
While the Auburn fans had long exited the building at game’s end, the delirious Georgia fans stayed throughout the awards ceremony, which was held on the raised platform at midfield. After the happy Bulldogs received the SEC Championship Trophy and Roquan Smith was presented the MVP trophy and interviewed by Allie LaForce of CBS, confetti rained down from the top of Mercedes-Benz to cap a long-awaited title coronation for the University of Georgia, one that hadn’t occurred in this city since D.J. Shockley led the Bulldogs to the 2005 SEC crown.
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