ATHENS — It was early in the fourth quarter when I turned to my colleagues on press row and proclaimed: “Georgia’s got this. Auburn can’t do anything.” The rest of the game, it seemed, was mere ticking down the clock on yet another case of one team just having the other team’s number.
It may have been a shocking result to some people, especially outside the Deep South. But those close to this rivalry knew a 10-point spread was way too much, especially with the underdog at home. And especially with the road team facing some major health questions on offense.
But as always, emotion and history have to be taken out of it. It’s ultimately about football, which the re-watch of the game consistently reveals. So as we do every Monday, let’s delve deeper:
WHY GEORGIA SHUT DOWN AUBURN’S OFFENSE
Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee, speaking to reporters Sunday night, said he wished he had called more runs, and used the Wildcat more. Quarterback Sean White – via SEC Country’s Justin Ferguson – said Sunday that he a) hurt himself more Saturday night and didn’t make that clear to coaches, and b) had “mental reps” at practice in advance of the game but hadn’t thrown in practice in two weeks. Why on earth was he playing, when it was clear he couldn’t throw anymore?
Well, no complaints from Georgia.
White did actually look better throwing in the first half. He had one downfield throw, about 20 yards to Marcus Davis, that was accurate, but Quincy Mauger had good coverage and Davis couldn’t haul it in. White was nowhere near as accurate as the game went on. He must have aggravated his injury after that throw.
During Auburn’s one scoring drive, in the first quarter, there was a lot of misdirection, several runs out of the Wildcat, and White even completed a couple passes, on a quick hitters and a jet sweep. Georgia was on its heels so much that Kirby Smart called timeout late in the drive, but Auburn still punched it in three plays later. All in all, it looked like an ominous drive for Georgia’s defense.
That was Auburn’s second drive. Auburn actually had something going with the run on its first drive, but the muffed snap on second-and-6 derailed the momentum. So through two drives, it looked like Auburn was poised to roll.
So what changed? Well, nothing right away: Auburn’s third drive actually reached Georgia’s 38, but then Georgia’s pass pressure averted further damage. Then Auburn gained 14 yards on a quick-out pass to start their fourth drive. That would be the Tigers’ last first down of the game.
The line of demarcation was with the next play, when a run up the middle was stopped by Trent Thompson for a 1-yard gain. Second down as a sack, with the entire pocket squeezing White, and Jonathan Ledbetter bringing him down.
When the second half began, Auburn came out throwing. Pass, pass, pick-six. The Tigers seemed to be trying to loosen up Georgia’s defense, and it backfired badly.
Maurice Smith was just in the right place at the right time. He appeared to be in zone coverage, and White just threw an awful pass. Smith joked after the game that White may have thought Smith was wearing a white jersey. Well, it seemed like it.
The final verdict: You hate to be this simplistic. But it just seems like after that first series, and that pick-six, Georgia’s defense realized once and for all that Auburn couldn’t pass, so it sold out everywhere else. It covered the edges on first and second down to contain the outside runs, which Auburn had run pretty effectively in the first half. Safeties did not play deep, unafraid of Auburn trying the deep pass. And on third down it blitzed liberally.
And when Auburn couldn’t get first downs, it couldn’t go up-tempo and get Georgia’s defense on its heels. That’s what worked on its lone scoring drive. That’s what the Tigers depend on. The Bulldogs took that away by not letting them move the markers once in the second half.
Mel Tucker also did a great job ordering up blitzes on obvious passing downs: On Auburn’s first drive, Quincy Mauger blitzed through the left side and forced a bad throw. On Auburn’s third drive, it had third-and-6 from Georgia’s 38 when Roquan Smith blitzed up the middle and White dumped off a pass that ended up losing 13 yards. In the second half, Reggie Carter blitzed up the middle on third down and got Georgia’s first sack.
While the ink-stained media doesn’t get assistant coaches, the CBS crew does get Jim Chaney, who told Gary Danielson he had to be “non-emotional. … I can’t over-react to things that happen. I have to stick to my gameplan. And I want to throw later in the game when those pass rushers are a little tired. Early in the game they’re tough.”
What Chaney may not have expected was the gift he got on the other side of the ball. Auburn’s defense ended up being on the field so much that it wore down. But Chaney was also able to take advantage. For the second straight week he was in the press box – but also for the second straight week, he utilized a gameplan that best fit the strengths of his team.
Last week, I observed to Kirby Smart that his team just seems better in the shot-gun and spread. Smart disagreed. That may have just been posturing, judging by Saturday’s gameplan: Once again, a heavy dose of shot-gun, with a good amount of spread as well.
Georgia went in the shot-gun 45 times Saturday, more than half of its total offensive plays. Those shot-gun plays resulted in 214 yards (out of 343 total yards), as well as two defensive pass interference penalties, and a 43-yard pass to Javon Wims that was negated by a holding call. Eason completed almost all of his 20 passes out of the shot-gun, and Georgia also ran out of it nine times – gaining 29 yards, not much, though a 13-yarder was in there.
Chaney’s gameplan also liberally utilized outside runs: 20 runs, by my humble count, were to the edges or the sidelines, totaling 113 yards. That was the vast majority of Georgia’s rushing yardage.
But credit also where it’s due: Georgia’s run blocking was better, even on more traditional plays: When Nick Chubb sprung an 18-yard run to open the second drive – up the middle, a rarity for this offense, the blocking was great, especially by Greg Pyke. And when Sony Michel ran for 14 yards through the left side, there was a huge hole created by left tackle Isaiah Wynn (having shifted over with Catalina briefly out) and Dyshon Sims at left guard.
A few other offensive notes:
- Eason hasn’t thrown an interception in awhile, but he very nearly had a bad one on the second drive, throwing into double coverage around McKenzie, the ball just bouncing off an Auburn defender. And he threw another into double coverage in the fourth quarter, that one also barely going off the defender’s hands. Eh, at least gives Smart and Chaney something to scold Eason about.
- But man, does Eason throw a pretty sideline pass.
- Terry Godwin’s interception looks worse on replay than it did in person. Godwin told me after the game he was trying to throw it away, and on replay you realize Godwin was trying to throw it out of the back of the end zone, rather than just throw it out of bounds, which he was allowed to do – and which Kirby Smart was clearly telling him as he came off the field. But that’s another reason it was such a risk to make that call in that situation: When you’re not used to passing, your first thought is just to hit the receiver, and when no one’s open the potential for brain farts increases exponentially.
ALSO WORTH NOTING
- On the air, Lundquist said that Chubb – in a Friday interview with the CBS team – said he has not made a decision about whether to declare for the NFL draft. No surprise there. But then Lundwuist added that “there was almost an air of resignation” about Chubb, and Danielson added that “he did not seem as bright and happy as we’ve seen him.” That’s no surprise to those of us who have interviewed Chubb this season, but it was surprising to hear Lundquist and Danielson say so on the air. They’re sensing the same thing we are.
- After Riley Ridley caught a first-down pass late in the third quarter, he signaled first down. Then an official could be seen coming up and saying something to Ridley. It’s a good guess it was something like: “Hey, don’t do that again.” It would have been pretty excessive to throw a flag there. But A.J. Green would probably tell Ridley to be careful too. You never know with some officials.
- Regarding the holding call that negated Eason’s 43-yarder to Wims on the first drive: It was a good call, as Catalina hauled his man down, illegally so. However, it looked like two other linemen were closer to Eason than Catalina’s man, and Eason was knocked down on the play and still completed the pass. In other words, Catalina’s man wasn’t going to get to Eason before he got the pass off anyway. Just a bad break for Georgia’s offense.
- Meanwhile, the no-call in the second quarter on what should have been pass interference while defending Riley Ridley … looks as bad the second time around. Not only was Ridley interfered with at the end of the play, but early on in his route it looked like the cornerback grabbed him, seeming to realize he was beat.
- On the first drive, it sure looked like Tray Matthews could have been called for a late hit, as Sony Michel was a couple steps out of bounds. I actually don’t mind officials swallowing their whistle on that, as it wasn’t egregious and those things just happen in football sometimes. But by the book, it could have been called.
- Commercial observation: I have no intention of ever watching it, but “Kevin Can Wait” is a clever title.
The elements were there for Georgia to pull off the upset: Auburn was without its best tailback, and the situation with its hobbled starting quarterback was apparently mishandled in the lead-up to the game. Georgia may not be a great team. But it was still good enough to take advantage of the opening.
Jim Chaney’s gameplan once again gave his offense a chance to move the ball, and it did. Not getting into the end zone was a failing, but 343 yards against that defense is nothing to scoff at.
Mel Tucker’s defense, meanwhile, exploited Auburn’s problems in the second half, where it won the game. Maurice Smith’s pick-six changed the complexion of the game. Auburn’s offense couldn’t do anything to change momentum, and Georgia’s defense deserves most – though not all – of the credit for that.
But the biggest takeaway? It can no longer be said that Georgia isn’t improving this season. It is. The defense has obviously taken steps forward, but so have the offensive line and special teams. And the coaches. Georgia still has a chance to make this a respectable season because two weeks ago it didn’t pack it in, and while this season’s ceiling may now be limited, that’s an encouraging sign for the future.