It certainly wasn’t the best showing you’ll ever see in all aspects of the game, but Georgia’s 13-7 win over Auburn on Saturday was, for me, the quintessential perfect day of college football.
To those who’ve asked me over the years why I’m so devoted to spending Saturdays in the fall following my alma mater’s team, and why I prefer the college game to its professional cousin, I present the latest installment in the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry as Exhibit A:
A perfect, brisk, almost chilly day in a charming college town, watching two schools that have been playing each other for 120 years meet before a packed house in a picturesque campus stadium with all the attendant hoopla: both marching bands performing; a moment of tribute to a fallen alum; past heroes introduced on the field; one of the student sections paying tribute to U.S. veterans by forming Old Glory with red, white and blue cards; a flyover by fighter jets; and a 3:30 p.m. kickoff, which allowed plenty of time for tailgating and meant the game finished after dark, with the crowd heralding the arrival of the fourth quarter by lighting up their cellphones like thousands of twinkling stars.
Oh, and the unranked home team, a double-digit underdog, upsetting its heralded visitor, giving a first-year coach his first win over a top 10 team and his first victory over a big rival. Plus, holding one of the nation’s best offenses to zero first downs in the second half!
For a college football fan, and particularly for a Georgia Bulldog fan who grew up in the era of Erk Russell Junkyard defenses, it just doesn’t get any better than that.
As defensive performances go, Georgia’s on Saturday was one for the ages. The Tigers had been averaging 43 points per game over their previous five coming into the game Between the Hedges, but were held to just 7 points. (The last time that happened for Gus Malzahn’s offense was also in Athens, two years ago.)
Coach Kirby Smart and defensive coordinator Mel Tucker did a superb job of adjusting at halftime Saturday to negate Auburn’s first-half running success on the perimeter, forcing plays inside, into the strength of Georgia’s defensive front. The Dawgs also harassed an opposing QB successfully (a rarity this season) thanks to some well-timed blitzes. And Alabama transfer Maurice Smith’s pick-6 on Auburn’s first possession of the second half provided Georgia’s only touchdown and set the tone for how the Dawgs played in the final two quarters.
Also good was how Smart slowed down Malzahn’s hurry-up offense by liberally subbing his defensive linemen every time the Tigers made a substitution, and his clock management late in the game was spot-on, making up for earlier lapses in that department this season.
If the head coach gets a demerit from Saturday’s game, it was for the two trick plays he tried with wide receiver Terry Godwin (a high school quarterback) throwing the ball. Neither play worked, and one resulted in an interception. Kudos to Smart for being aggressive, rather than just trying to run it in against the Tigers’ massive defensive line, but if anyone’s going to be throwing the ball for Georgia in those red-zone situations, it should be QB Jacob Eason, who made a number of tricky passes to suddenly sticky-fingered receivers and really had only one bad throw all day.
Worth special note was a one-handed catch by Riley Ridley, who thankfully seems to have gotten over his case of the drops. Isaiah McKenzie and Isaac Nauta also had impressive receptions. It also should be mentioned that Eason likely would have had a touchdown pass but for a blatant case of pass interference that went uncalled by the inconsistent SEC officiating crew.
Speaking of the red zone, that is still the Dawgs offense’s weakness — or, rather, the play of Georgia’s much-maligned offensive line in the red zone is Georgia’s weakness. Thanks to offensive coordinator Jim Chaney having Nick Chubb and Sony Michel bounce it outside more, rather than continually trying (in vain) to run up the middle (where they still had little success), Georgia’s running game worked pretty well between the 20s — dominating time of possession and getting Chubb back over the century mark in yardage.
But, between holding calls, repeated false starts (you can’t keep track of the snap count at home, really??!!) and a bad snap, the OL managed to sabotage the Dawgs once they got deep into Auburn territory. If not for those offensive line gaffes, Georgia should have had another 7 to 10 points. Pass protection was also pretty spotty, with Eason again having to hurry too many throws. This never will be a great offensive line, but I’m hoping that, before the season ends, we’ll at least see one day on which the group rises to the level of merely adequate.
Thankfully, though, quirky folk hero Rodrigo Blankenship was again there to save the day. The walk-on placekicker, who a week earlier beat Kentucky with four field goals, drew a round of applause from the crowd when he first ran on the field, which perhaps contributed to the confident way he played Saturday. In addition to making two field goals and nearly notching a third that would have matched his career long but fell just short in the face of a breeze, Blankenship wowed the crowd with his kickoffs, all of which either went into or over the end zone for a touchback, and only one of which was returned (and kept inside the 20). Hot Rod even managed to get one of his kickoffs to split the uprights, thanks to a fortuitous bounce, and another completely cleared the field. It was obvious Blankenship was pumped!
However, the Wild Thing, as some fans have taken to calling him, wasn’t the only bright spot in Georgia’s special teams play. While third-string QB Brice Ramsey, taking over the starting punting duties after Marshall Long was injured in practice, didn’t wow anyone with his hang time or the length of his kicks (averaging 33.7 yards, with one bad shank), the Dawgs managed to down three of his punts inside the Auburn 20, and that’s what really matters. On the other side of the punting equation, I’d still like to see Georgia put a second safety back there with McKenzie so that we don’t see so many opponent’s punts hitting the ground and rolling. Still, the improvement overall in that aspect of the game over the past couple of weeks has been dramatic.
All in all, it was the kind of day that makes a lifetime spent following this sport, and this team, seem eminently worthwhile.
Remembering one of the greats
The performance by Georgia’s defense Saturday surely must have put a smile on the face of the latest arrival in Bulldog Heaven, UGA legend “Big” Bill Stanfill.
Stanfill was a consensus All-American defensive lineman from the Vince Dooley era (Georgia’s only Outland Trophy winner), who went on to stardom with the Miami Dolphins, including being a key component of their legendary undefeated season.
He was also a favorite among those of us growing up Bulldog in Athens in the 1960s.
I asked several contemporaries of mine from the Classic City for their favorite memories of Stanfill, and two games consistently came up: Georgia’s 27-10 upset of previously unbeaten Florida in 1966, when Stanfill, then a sophomore, led the rush on Heisman-winning Gators quarterback Steve Spurrier, sacking him twice and hitting him repeatedly throughout the day. And the 51-0 shellacking of the Gators two years later, when Dooley rewarded Stanfill by putting him in at quarterback at the end of the game.
My friend Johnny Barrett added, “Most of all, what I remember about Bill was how hard he played. Never let up. Always full speed ahead.”
One of the greats.
(If there’s something you want to discuss, or you have a question, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or connect with me on Facebook or via Twitter. And don’t forget to check out past entries of the Junkyard Blawg.)