BY WIL CREWS
In a ruckus 24 hours of college football Saturday, the only feathers Auburn ruffled were its own.
The Tigers flashed moments of proficiency in the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry, but an excess of miscues on both sides of the ball led to a 34-10 defeat at the hands of the visiting No. 2 Georgia Bulldogs.
“I told the players at the end of the game, ‘It’s a long season,’” said Auburn head coach Bryan Harsin, in his postgame press conference. “There’s still a lot of football to be played. There’s a lot of things that we know we’re not there yet that we are going to keep working hard at.”
Things started well for the Tigers against their cross-state rivals, as an opening 17-play drive ended in a 24-yard Anders Carlson field goal — putting the Bulldogs behind in a game for the first time this season.
The hope that Georgia would crumble in the face of its first adversity of the season quickly subsided, however. Miscues began to plague Auburn as the offense failed to score on its next six drives (which resulted in an interception, four punts and a turnover on downs) and in turn saw the Bulldogs stretch their lead to 17-3 with a pair of touchdowns and a field goal.
The vaunted Georgia refused to relent for much of the first half, however the Tigers found themselves with another scoring opportunity at the Bulldog’s 7-yard line with less than a minute before the break. The ensuing play calling was at best questionable as three straight passing plays were dialed up to no avail.
It appeared Auburn would attempt to cut into the lead with a field goal, however, when Georgia jumped offsides on fourth down, a forward-thinking Harsin sent his offense back onto the field to attempt a fourth-and-goal from the 3-yard line.
The play resulted in yet another incomplete pass from Nix and Georgia escaped to the locker room up 14 in a half where its defense looked penetrable and offense was relatively inhibited.
Following the game, Harsin pointed out his offense’s struggles to end drives with touchdowns and explained his decision to forgo the field goal just before the half.
“I think you have to be aggressive,” he said. “You’ve got to let guys go out there and have a chance to make plays. Whether it goes our way in that [fourth down] play, that’s what we have to fight for.”
Having held the Georgia offense to just 36 rushing yards in the first half (the Bulldogs were averaging 194.6 rushing yards per contest prior to Auburn), the game plan for the Tigers was clearly to make Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett beat them in what was only his ninth career start.
In typical, uncooperative ‘Dawg fashion, Bennet was near flawless on the day, finishing 14-for-21 for 231 yards and two TD’s while also rushing for a career high 41 yards.
“Georgia was able to make it happen with some explosive throws,” Harsin said. “We don’t want to give those up and we certainly want to create them. We need to find more ways to do that because it does create the momentum that we need.”
Bennet’s efficacy of exposing the orange-and-blue secondary and an Auburn team that visibly grew wearier with every collision of pads proved an inauspicious combination for the Tigers.
After missing a field goal on the opening drive of the second half, the Bulldogs flexed their prowess by putting up 17 more points with their next three drives. A silver-lined Tank Bigsby touchdown was mixed in there for the Tigers, but a stop-and-start performance from the offense failed to ever induce much worry along the Georgia sideline.
Despite the loss, the Tigers can take some positives from the game.
Northwestern transfer defensive end Eku Leota registered his team-high fourth sack of the season; Zion Puckett and Bydarrius Knighten both reached career high tackle marks with 10 and nine, respectively; and Nix performed admirably in the face of the nation’s defense, leading the Tigers in both passing in rushing.
So where did it all go wrong for Auburn? Was it the drops by the receivers? The absence of starting linebacker Owen Pappoe and ejection of defensive leader Smoke Monday? The offensive and defensive lines lacking the talent or stamina to keep up with Georgia’s acclaimed fronts?
It’s probably a mix of all those things, however it’s hard to point fingers at anyone in particular. Georgia are simply the better team.
But, that does not mean the Tigers should be satisfied with how they played. Fans inside of Jordan-Hare Stadium surely expected better.
At the halfway point in the season and looking toward Arkansas this weekend, Harsin expects better, too.
“We’ll find a way to play better,” he said. “That’s the challenge this week. It’s just like, ‘We’ve got to go back to work and everybody knows it.’ When you’ve got a team that’s like that, then you have the mentality in your program. It doesn’t guarantee you a win but it sure as hell is a lot more enjoyable when you’ve got guys that want to succeed and show up every day to do that, and then you can put a good plan together — that’s our job — and allow those guys to go out there and execute it.”