ATHENS -- Mark Richt expected something much different Saturday.
Georgia’s head coach knew the kind of game Auburn has been accustomed to playing, getting into scoring battles with its opponents, often relying on last-ditch efforts to squeeze out narrow conference wins. As Richt said, he prepared himself and his team for a “barn-burner.”
It never happened.
“We just didn’t know how good our defense was going to play,” Richt said.
Indeed, Georgia’s defense provided perhaps its most impressive performance in the Jeremy Pruitt era. An Auburn offense that was averaging 38.7 points per game managed to score only seven — the fewest in Gus Malzahn’s two years as Auburn's head coach.
Despite Auburn’s offensive threat, particularly in the running game, the defense’s game plan stuck to performing the fundamental tasks that have been mishandled at times throughout the season.
“We just decided to execute and tackle them,” linebacker Lorenzo Carter said. “It’s mostly about making tackles. We knew they were going to make some explosive plays. That’s what they do. We just had to stay composed.”
Even Auburn’s signature big plays were limited in Georgia’s 34-7 win. After a first quarter in which Georgia gave up 121 yards of total offense, Auburn only amassed 171 yards in the final three quarters. Tigers running back Cameron Artis-Payne, who had 58 yards and a touchdown on the first possession, managed only 28 afterwards.
Georgia simply came prepared to stop the run.
“Most of our defenses were designed to try to stop the run. That was it,” Richt said.
When they had to, however, the Bulldogs played the pass well, too. Nick Marshall, who entered the contest as the most efficient passer in the SEC, completed fewer than 50 percent of his passes, going 11-of-23 for a mere 112 yards and an interception.
But, perhaps most surprising, was Marshall’s ineffectiveness in the read option. Richt hinted that Georgia game planned to force Marshall to hand the ball off to his running back rather than keep it himself, something many other SEC teams have struggled to accomplish.
“Most of his reads were to give the ball,” Richt said.
And when he did so, the Bulldogs’ defensive front made certain the other Tigers backs wouldn’t hurt the defense with big plays. Pruitt didn’t have any secret recipe. Georgia preached the need to get aligned quickly to counteract the up-tempo nature of Malzahn’s offense.
“We just ran to the ball and beat them back to the ball every time,” linebacker Amarlo Herrera said. “They go so fast that if you’re not lined up, they get a big play. We just worked on in practice running back to the ball.”
While Georgia’s players refused to label this performance as any kind of “statement game” for the defense, there was certainly a sense of pride in holding an offense that had averaged 286.4 yards on the ground so far this season to only 150. For two weeks now, Georgia has brushed off the embarrassing run defensive performance it put on display against Florida and shades of which returned in the second quarter against Kentucky last week.
On Saturday, however, any self-doubt that might have remained was eliminated.
“It’s extremely rewarding, especially after what Florida did,” Carter said. “We have to make sure that we weren’t known as that team that people could just run the ball on. We did a pretty good job coming out here tonight and doing that.”