Georgia head coach Kirby Smart, like the Bulldogs themselves, was elated his team was able to stymie a still formidable Auburn team and come away with a solid 27-10 decision over the 24th-ranked Tigers Saturday night at a chilly Sanford Stadium.
But, also, the Georgia mentor knows the 5th-ranked and now 9-1 Bulldogs still had a number of negatives in the game, such as too many penalties (12 in all for 85 yards) and a perplexing problem of again not being able to score touchdowns when driving down inside the opponents’ 5-yard line. Smart knows this can’t continue if Georgia is to defeat rival Georgia Tech in two weeks and then have any success at all against top-ranked Alabama in the SEC championship game on Dec. 1.
“We didn’t play a perfect game,” said Smart. “It was physical and we shot ourselves in the foot too much. We’re a work in progress. But we’re fighting tooth and nail and we don’t panic. … It was a physical game. We played a ton of guys on defense. I’m proud of the way the guys competed,” he said.
Smart, while lauding a Georgia defensive unit that held the Tiger attack to just one touchdown on the night, blanked Auburn in the second half and limited the Tigers to just 274 yards of total offense, also was happy with the huge performance of sophomore tailback D’Andre Swift, who ran for another career-high of 186 yards on 17 carries (10.9 yards per carry), including a game-clinching 77-yard touchdown run early in the fourth quarter while also leading the receivers with four catches for 43 yards.
“If we feed him, he does well,” said Smart. “He’s got a great offensive line in front of him, he’s explosive and he makes guys miss on the second level. The wideouts deserve credit for some big-time downfield blocking too.”
“I was just trying to make plays,” said Swift, who posted his third straight 100-yard rushing performance. “I’m a versatile player, so it’s just getting me the ball in open space. The O-line did a good job of giving me somewhere to go,” Swift said. “I couldn’t do anything without them. We’ve had a lot of young players that stepped up. I know JJ Holoman threw a great block for me on that scoring run.”
Senior defensive end Jonathan Ledbetter was one of the leaders for the Bulldogs on that side of the ball. Although the Georgia defense didn’t record a sack of Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham, they brought a strong rush on Stidham most of the night, forcing him to get rid of the football quicker than he wanted to on a number of pass attempts.
“We wanted to hold them to under 100 yards rushing,” said Ledbetter. “Whether that’s any running back or anybody rushing, no 100-yard rushers. We wanted to hold them to 3 points, so technically we didn’t meet our goal, but they didn’t score in the second half. We’ve still got some work to do,” Ledbetter said. “We set a standard and we go get it, and we didn’t do that tonight but we played well. Not saying that we didn’t have a good win, but you don’t want to celebrate too much.
“We’re going to enjoy it tonight with our friends, family and our teammates,” he said. “Then we’re going to come to the drawing board and start working again.”
Sophomore quarterback Jake Fromm and junior tailback Elijah Holyfield (93 yards on 15 carries) also contributed heavily to a Georgia offensive performance that saw the Bulldogs rush for 303 yards and pass for 213 more. Fromm was 13-of-20 for 193 yards and two touchdowns, a 14-yard strike to Tyler Simmons and a 38-yard touchdown pass to Terry Godwin in the final seconds of the first half that staked the Bulldogs to a 20-10 halftime advantage. Fromm was instrumental in the Bulldogs being able to convert on eight of 14 third down conversions.
“That’s something we really emphasize at practice,” said junior receiver Simmons. “We have a day of the week where we emphasize third down and it shows on the field … We always put ourselves in that situation in practice, so when we get to the game it’s easy.” On his first career touchdown reception, the 14-yarder with 2:47 to go in the first half, Simmons said: “It just gave us a lot of momentum going forward in the game. Of course it feels good for me to get into the end zone, but it felt good for the team to get some momentum going.”
“We’re working hard and getting better,” said Smart. “The guys are buying into what we’re selling. If we can keep improving as a team, if the guys keep buying in, we’ve got a good shot. UMass presents a good offensive unit but we’ve got to get better this week and work on us.”
Smart said the entire atmosphere of Sanford Stadium under the lights on a Saturday night played a huge role in his team’s performance.
“The fans were awesome tonight,” Smart said. “The students were packed in there. The fans represented well and impacted the game. We love that, and the recruits fall in love with it.”