AUBURN, Ala. — The Georgia defense came up big with its back to the wall Saturday at Auburn.
The No. 1-ranked Bulldogs rallied and hung on for a 27-20 win over the Tigers at Jordan-Hare Stadium on Saturday.
Malaki Starks intercepted a Payton Thorne fourth-down pass at the UGA 39 with 1:28 left to secure the win.
The biggest stops, however, might have occurred at the end of the first half.
Auburn was facing a third-and-1 at the UGA 12 with the game tied at 10-10 when Smael Mondon stopped Auburn lead back Jarquez Hunter in the hole.
Facing a fourth-and-1, Hugh Freeze elected to go for it, and Jamon Dumas-Johnson took Hunter’s legs out from under him and halt the 10-play, 51-yard drive.
Freeze indicated the timing was off on account of a high snap, but replays show that might be debatable.
“I thought it was a great call, and I think that’s what you should do in that scenario,” Freeze said. “It’s what the analytics said. In this game, we had to be very aggressive. You’ve got less than a yard, and it was a bad time to get a high snap, for sure.”
Mondon led the Georgia defense with 11 tackles including two tackles for loss and one of the team’s three sacks.
Two-time CFP Defensive MVP Javon Bullard returned after missing two games with an ankle injury and had 10 stops along with two pass break-ups.
Tykee Smith and Malaki Starks each had five tackles, with Smith getting a sack and Starks getting the interception, while defensive tackle Nazir Stackhouse led the D-Line with five tackles.
Still, it was a game that saw the Tigers’ knock Georgia back off the ball like few other teams in recent memory.
Auburn snapped Georgia’s string of 18-straight games out-rushing their opponents, gaining 219 yards on the ground to the Bulldogs’ 107 yards rushing.
Amazingly, the Tigers snapped a string of 65 games where Georgia had held its opponent under 200 yards rushing, dating back to a 36-16 loss to LSU in Baton Rouge during the 2018 season.
Those LSU Tigers, led by Clyde Edwards-Helaire (19 carries, 145 yards) and Joe Burrow (13-66) had 275 yards and 3 TDs on 51 carries.
To be clear, Auburn did not have nearly the same passing threat as LSU, and that showed up in the team’s paltry third-down efficiency (2-of-12) and the final score.
Georgia coach Kirby Smart noted that the Tigers got both of their touchdowns following the Bulldogs’ turnovers, but he acknowledged the issue with the run defense.
" …. Good football teams don’t let people run the ball for over 200 yards,” Smart said. “That’s one of the things that we knew they could do well. I thought they really ran the ball well and used the quarterback and rushed the ball on us. We can’t do that.”
Smart did what he could to get his team prepared for Auburn’s unique rushing attack and some of the things Trent Dilfer’s UAB offense created the week before.
“They’ve got misdirection plays, a lot of them that we practiced,” Smart said. “Number one, you get an extra hat when you have the quarterback. We all know that. So, unless you’ve got really good, really elite defensive line, linebackers and safeties that are filling and fitting just perfectly, one misfit is an 8-9 yard run.”
Georgia has lost five defensive linemen to the NFL in the past two drafts: Jordan Davis, Travon Walker and Devonte Wyatt after the 2021 season, and Jalen Carter and Nolan Smith after last season.
Smart told everyone in the spring he wasn’t sure UGA had those sort of “train wreckers and havoc makers” on this year’s roster.
" In the past, we haven’t struggled with that kind of run game,” Smart said. “They hurt us. They copied some things UAB did, and we expected it.
“That’s what’s the disappointing thing. You expect it, and you don’t stop it. We’ve got to help our players and get better on defense.”