With two games left in the regular season, it has become clear that Kirby Smart’s 2019 Dawgs will live or die by their top-level defense.
That was the case Saturday at Auburn, where the Georgia D was magnificent for three quarters, carrying a shutout of the Tigers until the final 10 minutes of the game.
Unfortunately, that almost wasn’t enough. The Dawgs’ defenders, who have notched a remarkable 28 scoreless quarters this season, were on the field way too long against Auburn, due to an only fitfully effective Georgia offense that, despite taking a 21-0 lead, was held to a ridiculous nine three-and-outs by the best defense they’d faced all season.
As a result, the Georgia defense “lost composure,” as Smart put it later, and let Auburn back into the game with a pair of too-easy fourth-quarter scoring drives. As the Georgia head coach told the Bulldogs radio network’s Chuck Dowdle after the game, “Defensively, we just wore down. And we can’t do that. We’ve got to be able to play four quarters.”
The Bulldogs had to defend a season-high 86 plays, the most by an opposing team in the Smart era.
It didn’t help that, perhaps because his troops were tiring in spite of his liberal substitution policies, defensive coordinator Dan Lanning had the Dawgs’ defense in soft zone schemes in the fourth quarter that allowed Auburn freshman quarterback Bo Nix to slice and dice his way downfield with the sort of short passing game that unfortunately seems to have gone absent from UGA’s offensive playbook.
It also didn’t help that Georgia again appeared to try to sit on a lead (you’d think Smart would have learned that lesson after being burned twice by Alabama), with Georgia’s already less than prolific offense going ultra conservative in the fourth quarter, resulting in no first downs for the Dawgs in that period.
In the end, the Georgia defense, so stout against the run all season, even gave up its first rushing touchdown of the year (though it held the Tigers’ rushers in check most of the game, with AU netting only 84 yards on the ground). Auburn QB Nix was the Tigers’ leading rusher, with a net 42 yards on 13 carries. Nix put the ball in the air 50 times, completing 30 of them for 1 touchdown. Georgia’s Jake Fromm completed just 13 of 28 passes for 110 yards, but 3 of those passes were for TDs.
Part of the problem with the 2019 Dawgs is that the word long has been out on how to defend Georgia’s talented but incomplete offense, resulting in a wash-rinse-repeat storyline week after week: Stack the box with 8 men to slow down or stop the run, because the Dawgs’ passing game isn’t consistent.
While it’s true that Georgia’s receiving corps lost an awful lot of talent at the end of last season, the relative youth and inexperience of the Dawgs’ pass catchers isn’t the main problem. In fact, they made some terrific catches Saturday, including the 51-yard bomb caught by Dominick Blaylock that gave Georgia its first score, and a third-quarter pass to Kearis Jackson in the corner of the end zone that was ruled out of bounds on video review but was still a fantastic effort. (Georgia did manage to score on that drive, thankfully.)
No, the problem wasn’t receivers not getting open; it was ineffective scheming.
Sorry if this sounds like a broken record stuck on the same phrase over and over, but the offensive play-calling again was problematic. Too many times Saturday, we saw the Dawgs facing a 3rd-and-medium or 3rd-and-long situation, and too many times offensive coordinator James Coley and Fromm seemed fixated on difficult sideline routes 15 or 20 yards downfield. If you need just 5 to 9 yards for a first down, why send so many receivers deep?
Two years ago, in Georgia’s march to the national championship game, the short slant pass was Fromm’s bread and butter, to the point that opposing defenses centered their trash-talking on that tendency. Remember the “anyone can throw a slant” diss that Fromm made the Gators regret?
However, this season, Coley calls a slant (the sort of pass that Auburn was so successful with on its two scoring drives) only once or twice a game, if that often. Instead, Georgia fixates on those back-shoulder sideline routes that are wonderful when they work, but which don’t work often enough.
The 3rd-down magic Georgia had back in the Florida game seems to have evaporated, as they converted only 3 of 15 tries Saturday. (Auburn was a similarly dismal 5 of 18.)
The result was a decidedly lackluster day offensively for the Dawgs. Remember how a week ago we were complaining that Georgia relied too heavily on Rodrigo Blankenship, settling for too many field goals instead of scoring touchdowns? If only that had been the case Saturday, as Hot Rod never even got to try one against Auburn.
Instead, it was Georgia punter Jake Camarda getting the stiff workout, kicking an incredible 11 punts for an average 50.7 yards. That included a magnificent field-flipping 66-yarder in the first quarter.
In the end, with Auburn having seized the momentum after a second scoring drive that took just over a minute off the clock, it was Georgia’s defense that put the game away, with a couple of 4th-down stands. On the first one, Nix misfired on a short pass, but the play that nailed the coffin shut on the subsequent Auburn drive saw freshman Trayvon Walker sacking Nix. That ended the Tigers’ final chance.
Thus, Georgia will represent the SEC East in the SEC Championship Game in Atlanta for the third consecutive year. It was Georgia’s 12th win in the past 15 games of the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry.
Auburn wound up the game with more first downs than Georgia (22 to 16) and more offensive yards (329 to 251), and dominated the time of possession (32:17 to 27:43), but most of it was too little too late. Those 329 yards the Georgia defense held Auburn to were the Tigers’ lowest home output of the season.
Dawgs defenders also got a bit of that “havoc” Smart always is harping on, tallying eight tackles for loss and two sacks. Georgia’s leading tackler was Monty Rice, with 10 stops. Dawgs safety Richard LeCounte also recovered a Nix fumble, though Georgia wasn’t able to do anything on the ensuing drive.
Offensively, Georgia never really established its rushing attack (which, Smart noted, makes it tough to get the play-action passing game going), but D’Andre Swift did rack up 106 yards on his 17 carries and, for the second straight year, went over a 1,000 yards for the season. He is the fifth Bulldog in history to have a pair of 1,000-yard seasons.
Brian Herrien added 26 tough yards and a couple of catches, including one for a touchdown.
With Fromm’s favorite receiver, Lawrence Cager, again going out injured, Demetris Robertson and Blaylock ended up the day as Georgia’s leading receivers, with Robertson catching 3 passes and freshman Blaylock snagging 2 (including one TD).
On special teams, Smart noted after the game that Georgia needs to “fix” the problem of too many penalties (on one punt, Georgia was flagged for both a false start and delay of game, though the latter was a bad call by the officiating crew).
So, bottom line: The defense is great, but the offense has a lot that needs fixing. As Swift said after the game, “I can’t say it enough: We’ve got to sustain drives. We’ve got to be better on third down. Third down has always been our strength. We didn’t do well today, not well enough. We’ll go back and look and see what we can do in those situations.”
Still, there’s one thing that shouldn’t be overlooked amid all the fretting about the Georgia offense’s shortcomings, or how the 4th-ranked Dawgs nearly collapsed in the fourth quarter: UGA got a third quality win Saturday against the 12th ranked Tigers, to go with a pair of Top 10 victories earlier in the season. As Smart said, playing at raucuous Jordan-Hare Stadium “was a tough environment,” and the Auburn Tigers are “a good football team.” Georgia became the first team to defeat Auburn under Gus Malzahn following a bye week, as the Tigers previously were 9-0 after a week off.
So, Georgia once again is the best of the SEC East. But, as impressive as that is, it’s the least of what was expected of this team. And, the road going forward, to achieve their ultimate goals of making the playoff and having another shot at a national championship, will require better effort from the offense than we’ve seen so far.
Smart summed it up: “We’ve got to get better offensively to get where we need to go.”