ATHENS — Georgia linebacker Roquan Smith called them “sideboards.”
Those “sideboards” were the adjustment that made the difference between the first half and the second half against Auburn Saturday.
And whatever they were, they worked.
The No. 8-ranked (Associated Press poll) Tigers had 1o7 yards rushing and 132 total in the first half. They’d only get 32 yards the rest of the game and no more first downs. The Bulldogs, without the benefit of an offensive touchdown, won 13-7.
Auburn is ranked No. 9 in the College Football Playoff rankings.
“We made some great halftime adjustments thanks to the great coaches we have,” said Smith, who led the Bulldogs with 7 tackles. “We just set up some sideboards because they were getting a lot of stuff on the perimeter, a lot of outside stuff. So we set up some sideboards and came out and played some ball. We just played like our backs were against the wall.”
They were. The Bulldogs were trailing 7-0 at halftime and, though generating some offense, just kept stalling outside the Auburn red zone.
The game turned 23 seconds into the second half when Maurice Smith intercepted Sean White on 3rd-and-2 and returned the ball 34 yards for a touchdown. Little did the Bulldogs know then the Tigers wouldn’t record a first down the rest of the half.
“It was a great job by Mel Tucker and the defensive staff,” Georgia head coach Kirby Smart said. “Those guys work really hard. … Those players believed they were going to stop them. They believed every time they went back out on the field they were going to stop them. And they did. I’m really proud of that and those players, who have bought in.”
Auburn came into the game leading the SEC in total offense with 494.1 yards per game and rushing offense at 300 per contest. In the Tigers’ defense, they were without the leading rusher in the SEC. Kamryn Pettway, a 6-foot, 240-pound junior with 1,106 yards, did not play due to a quad injury suffered the previous Saturday against Vanderbilt.
Kerryon Johnson, the starter earlier in the season, took over as the primary back and finished with 99 yards on 22 carries. But he managed only 25 yards after halftime. The Tigers ran only 22 offensive plays the rest of the way.
“The way we played tonight, they could have had anybody back there,” said junior outside linebacker Davin Bellamy, an emotional leader and de facto captain for the defense. “The effort was there all night. Auburn’s always going to change things up with their formations but basically run the same plays. So we had to figure out the smoke and mirrors. Once we found that out, we just kind of zoned in.”
Auburn’s 7 points marked a career low under coach Gus Malzahn, matching the 34-7 win Georgia had against the Tigers at Sanford Stadium in 2014. The Tigers had six 3-and-outs in the second half. They finished 2-for-12 on third down.
Georgia has been playing well on defense this season. The Bulldogs came into the game fourth in the SEC in total defense (324 ypg) and third against the run (118.2). Auburn finished with 127 yards on the ground.
“We’ve got to do more of it,” Smart said. “We tackled better. We wrapped up and didn’t seem to give up the extra yards. Those kids played hard. No first downs in the second half? I didn’t realize that til I walked off the field. I’m proud of the way they played.”