AUBURN, Ala. — It was Malkom Parrish who hit the Auburn running back out of bounds. It was D’Andre Walker who illegally leaped to try to block a punt. It was Jayson Stanley who was called for punt-catch interference. It was Sony Michel who was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct. It was Mecole Hardman who muffed the fair catch. You’ll recognize them all as Georgia football players.
Yet this is what we heard from Kirby Smart after the No. 1-ranked Bulldogs tumbled against No. 10 Auburn 40-17 on Saturday at Jordan-Hare Stadium: “I’m the one responsible for what we just did. I’m not running away from that.”
The coach who always says “humility is a week away” was remarkably humble and gracious in defeat Saturday. Most of us media-types assembled in the cramped, windowless room underneath the north grandstands expected a spittin’-and-cussin’ mad coach to emerge from the Georgia locker room for the postgame presser.
The thinking was his team had just violated every principle on which Smart is building his program. You know, poise and toughness and being physical and discipline.
That last word probably should be in all caps — DISCIPLINE.
Yet that’s not what we got. Smart shouldered the blame. The only finger he pointed was a thumb back to himself.
Oh, he was disappointed. For sure. It was all over his face. It draped his demeanor.
But the Bulldogs’ second-year coach said he felt his team learned some valuable lessons Saturday. And perhaps he did, too.
“I’m the one in charge,” Smart said with a shrug. “… It was a momentum game, and we certainly lost the momentum there with some really, really uncharacteristic, dumb penalties. Between the penalties and the fact that they were more physical than us on both lines of scrimmage. That’s on me. We’ve got to get up and go get better.”
Georgia didn’t lose a championship here on The Plains on Saturday. That’s the best news out of all this. The Bulldogs’ history books are marred with pages where Auburn broke the Bulldogs’ hearts and knocked them out of title contention. And the Tigers have similar recordings in their annals. That comes with the territory of rivals annually playing each other in mid-November at the end of a season.
But the Bulldogs came unglued a bit. Composed all season, Georgia did things we hadn’t seen all year. There were the big mistakes, like those aforementioned personal-foul penalties and turnovers, but there were a lot of little things, too.
The Bulldogs jumped offsides. They dropped passes and whiffed on blocks. Georgia scored on the game’s first possession and on its last one. In between were a box car full of missed opportunities.
Walking away from it, Smart was as bewildered by it as much as distressed.
“We resorted to tactics we don’t usually do,” he said, shaking his head.
But Smart wasn’t perfect himself. Georgia was out of timeouts at the end of the first half when it was gifted with an unexpected late possession and scoring opportunity thanks to another terrific punt return by Hardman.
Taking over at the Auburn 26 with 22 seconds remaining in the second quarter, Smart called for a run. Michel managed barely a yard, Jake Fromm had to spike the ball and Rodrigo Blankenship’s 42-yard field goal attempt sailed wide right.
“Not a good decision there. Probably a mistake,” Smart said of himself. “If we had it to do over there, we would’ve probably thrown the ball. The thinking was that we didn’t want to get knocked out of field goal range, but we should’ve thrown the ball, no doubt.”
These kinds of games happen all the time in the NFL. A bad game can snowball on you at any moment and that’s compounded by a motivated opponent putting on a show before a rocking home crowd. That’s what happened at Jordan-Hare on Saturday.
The key is in where Smart and the Bulldogs go from here. They’ll be favored in their last two regular-season games against Kentucky at home and against Georgia Tech in Atlanta. What’s important now is that the Bulldogs dust themselves off and play like the tough and poised team that the playoff selection team deemed the best in America a few days ago.
That was Smart’s message to the players in the locker room, and it was the one he was delivering to the media and Georgia’s fan base in that clammy interview room beneath Jordan-Hare.
“This team will be defined by how they respond, not by what they did [Saturday],” Smart said. “Kentucky’s not going to feel sorry for us. We can’t let Auburn beat us twice.”
No, once like this was enough.