AUBURN, Ala. — In a game only the winning coaches could love, the Georgia Bulldogs edged Auburn 20-13 here at Jordan-Hare Stadium Saturday.
The 119th renewal of the Deep South’s oldest rivalry wasn’t exactly pretty for the CBS television audience to watch. But to their credit, the Bulldogs came up with the plays they needed late in the game to win.
“It was a great victory for Georgia,” coach Mark Richt said. “A lot of fun in the locker room afterwards celebrating with the players and coaches. … It’s always a war to come here and play; it’s always a battle. It went about the way we thought.”
It was a hard-fought, physical game that, in the end, was decided by defense and special teams. Trailing 10-3 at halftime, Georgia created two turnovers and got a special-teams touchdown to score the come-from-behind victory. With it, the Bulldogs improve to 7-3 and complete the SEC slate 5-3 in a year they were picked to win the East. They play host to Georgia Southern in the final home game of the season next Saturday.
Meanwhile, Georgia took a one-game lead in the 127-year-old series. It now leads 56-55-8.
Auburn, which was also a preseason favorite not only to win the West, but the entire league, falls to 5-5, 2-5. The Tigers host Idaho next.
“That was a tough one today,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “I thought our defense played very well. They held them to 243 yards and (Georgia has) a lot of play-makers on that side of the ball. Obviously we didn’t get it done in the second half.”
It was the second-lowest offensive output of the season for Georgia and fourth of under 300 yards this season. Greyson Lambert started and went the whole game at quarterback, finishing with 97 yards on 12-of-17 passing. Sony Michel logged 77 hard-earned yards on 26 carries.
But the Bulldogs’ primary stars of the day were Isaiah McKenzie, Jordan Jenkins, Aaron Davis and Marshall Morgan.
McKenzie, the dynamic but oft-injured receiver, scored both Georgia touchdowns. His four-yard run around left end on jet sweep tied the game at 10 late in the third quarter. Then McKenzie made a surprise re-appearance as a punt returner in the fourth quarter and rewarded his coaches’ confidence with a 53-yard zig-zagging jaunt for a touchdown to give the Bulldogs a 17-10 lead with 9:28 to go in the fourth.
It was McKenzie’s fifth career kick return for a TD (four off punts), tying him with Brandon Boykin (2008-11) of the school record of five overall. His four punt return TDs ties him with Buzy Rosenberg (1970-72). Before Saturday, Auburn had not allowed a punt return for a TD in 10 years.
“It’s great to do that in a rivalry game like this, to score touchdowns or help the team out whichever way you can,” said McKenzie, a sophomore from Fort Lauderdale. “We’ve had our ups and downs this season, but this is a big rivalry and everything didn’t go well, but we did what we had to and my teammates are happy and I’m happy. It makes up for some of the pains we’ve felt this season.”
Then it was the defense’s turn to come through. Jenkins’s sack of Auburn quarterback Sean White produced a fumble recovered by Davis at the Auburn 17. Four plays later, Marshall Morgan kicked a 38-yard field goal, his second of the game, to stake the Bulldogs to a 10-point lead with 8:49 to go.
“It’s one of the greatest feelings in the world,” Jenkins said of his “hit-and-spit” sack. “I hit him hard because my head was ringing a little bit coming off the field … It’s an over-intoxicating feeling really. Just so much joy.”
Auburn came back strong and looked to be poised for another score deep in Bulldogs’ territory when Davis came through again. Georgia’s Lorenzo Carter’s tackle of Ricardo Louis caused a fumble that Davis recovered at the 1-yard line.
Georgia could muster only four yards on the ensuing possession and had to punt the ball back to Auburn after the Tigers took their last timeout with 3:09 remaining in the game. After Brice Ramsey punted with his heels on the back of the end zone, Auburn took over at the Georgia 37 with 2:56 to play.
The Bulldogs’ defense held again and Auburn settled for a 38-yard field goal with 1:14 to play to make it a one-score game at 20-13. But Georgia’s Malcolm Mitchell recovered the onsides kick attempt and, with Auburn out of timeouts, the game was over.
It was an especially good day for Georgia’s special teams overall. Morgan came in having missed five field goals this season but was good on both his attempts of 40 and 38 yards Saturday. Along with two PATs, he now has 391 career points, which moved him past Alabama’s Leigh Tiffin into third on the SEC’s all-time list.
“I’m just happy about today,” Morgan said. “I take it day-by-day, week-by-week. This was a good week.”
It was a great week for Richt and his staff, who have found themselves under fire every since losing three of four games in October to fall from a No. 7 ranking to out of the Eastern Division rank. Now the Bulldogs feel like they have some momentum heading into their final two games of the year against Georgia Southern and Georgia Tech.
“It’s great momentum,” said Richt, who improves to 143-51 in 15 seasons at Georgia. “We felt like we created some last week (with 27-3 win over Kentucky) but we knew this was going to be a battle royal. We knew it could’ve gone either way. …
“They’re all sweet. Wins are so hard to come by, so much of our lives invested in these games and these moments. I learned in my first year coming from Florida State, I’ll take any victory we can get in the SEC and be excited about it.”