ATHENS — I can’t say I saw this coming, not exactly. Who figured Georgia would hold the raging Auburn Tigers without a first down after halftime? But I did think the Bulldogs played rather well at Commonwealth Stadium last week, and for a team that had lost four of five even a victory over Kentucky can be precious. And the power of momentum in football can never be underrated.
That sounds counter-intuitive, I know. A football team plays once a week, not every day: Where’s the momentum in that? But football teams don’t just play a game and forget it: They spend six days marinating in what just happened. If what just happened was bad, they feel chastened. If what just happened was good, they’re emboldened.
The Georgia we saw against Auburn for four quarters was a Georgia we’d seen only in snippets the past two months. This isn’t to say the Bulldogs did everything right here Saturday. On the contrary, Jim Chaney’s offense seemed hell-bent on inventing ways not to score. But there was poise and purpose on display in Saturday’s 13-7 victory. This didn’t appear a team that needed a last-second field goal in Lexington to nose above .500. This looked like — dare we say it? — a good team.
If Rodrigo Blankenship had shanked his kick at Kentucky and the Wildcats had won in overtime, Georgia would have had no reason to believe. As it happened, he didn’t and it did. That was a much bigger night for the Big Blue than Georgia, but the Bulldogs settled into that game in a way they hadn’t since … when? Oct. 1 against Tennessee? They outplayed Kentucky badly over the second half. They outplayed Auburn — except for one drive that saw the Tigers gain nearly half their 164 yards — all game.
Clearly Auburn missed Kamryn Pettway. Any team would. (Except maybe one that has Sony Michel as a backup.) Those expecting the Tigers to roll over Georgia were missing the obvious: Kirby Smart knows Auburn’s offense as well as anyone, and Smart’s team, with the exception of that wretched day in Oxford, has played pretty stout defense. That augured a closer game than the spread — the Tigers were a 10-point favorite — suggested. It did not augur what actually transpired.
Georgia ran it well, threw it well enough, defended expertly. The Tigers were lucky to be ahead at halftime — former Bulldog Tray Matthews’ interception of Terry Godwin’s unbelievably awful pass had much to do with that — and 23 seconds into the second half they were ahead no longer. Sean White threw a wretched pass himself, and another transfer (Maurice Smith, ex-Alabama) snagged it and scored.
Having pulled even, Georgia exhaled. Then it imposed its will on a team that had been laying waste to opponents. Chaney kept calling weird plays — Smart claimed he as a head coach had lobbied for such gadgets — at the weirdest times, but the failure to score an offensive touchdown wasn’t a fatal error on a night when Auburn didn’t cross midfield over the final 39 minutes.
From the time it was tied, this was always Georgia’s game to win. Gus Malzahn and Rhett Lashlee called more second-half passes (14) than runs (six) — even though White was having a horrid day/night. (Six completions in 20 attempts for 27 yards.) You’d have thought the Tigers would have been the last team in these United States to abandon the run, but that’s what happened.
Auburn didn’t have a second-half possession that lasted longer than 103 seconds; Georgia held the ball for 22:54 seconds over the final 30 minutes. The Bulldogs’ offense kept their defense off the field. Their defense kept putting the offense back on it. That’s how it’s supposed to work. Rarely does it work quite this well.
Afterward, Smart said he’d hoped things had coalesced sooner but what counts is that they eventually do. That’s true. Once Georgia lost to Tennessee, any realistic thoughts of winning the SEC East were gone. After Vanderbilt and Florida, Smart had to do some real wrangling — largely of players he’d inherited, which is never an easy task — to keep the season from falling to pieces. But Georgia has risen from 4-4 to 6-4 with a win over a Top 10 opponent. Bulldog Nation should breathe easier, if not quiet easy.
Vandy and Florida marked a bottom. In times of transition, that can happen. What’s important is that rock bottom doesn’t become the new normal. For Georgia, it hasn’t. This won’t be the season many among us — I include myself — expected, but these Bulldogs have a chance to ring in 2017 on a high note. After Vandy and Florida, that’s all anyone could have asked.
Further reading: UGA hands Smart his first signature victory.