Georgia’s defense had forced a change of possession. Auburn punted and Georgia was going to get the ball back at its own 33-yard line trailing by two points. The Bulldogs had not played well, but the game remained close as the clock ticked under six minutes left in the first half.
Then a yellow flag spiraled onto the field. Georgia defensive lineman D’Andre Walker had been flagged for roughing the punter. Kirby Smart said it was something Georgia “never does.”
The penalty gave the Tigers 15 yards and a first down. Three plays later, Auburn scored its first touchdown of the game on Jarrett Stidham’s 42-yard pass to Darius Slayton. Auburn took a 16-7 lead on the ensuing extra point, giving Georgia its largest deficit of the season.
Walker’s penalty appeared to be the beginning of a game in which the top-ranked Bulldogs came unraveled and unglued during a 40-17 loss to the No. 10 Tigers. Georgia ended the game with more penalty yards (75) than rushing yards (46).
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“When you lose that discipline,” Smart said, “you get what you had here tonight.”
Within a nine minute span in the second quarter, Georgia committed three 15-yard penalties, including a late hit out-of-bounds by cornerback Malkom Parrish and kick catch interference on Jayson Stanley.
Georgia trailed by nine points entering the half, and its defense forced a punt to open the third quarter. Then Mecole Hardman muffed a punt, Auburn recovered, and the Tigers took a 23-7 lead soon after.
“That's my fault,” Hardman said. “I should have caught the ball.”
During a punt on Georgia’s next possession, Sony Michel, known as a level-headed leader on Georgia’s team, was flagged for a personal foul. Combined with a 26-yard return, the penalty gave Auburn’s offense the ball deep in Georgia territory. The Tigers scored again less than a minute later to take a 23-point lead. Georgia hadn’t trailed by that wide of a margin since Sept. 24, 2016, against Ole Miss.
“We understand we made some uncharacteristic plays,” senior wide receiver Javon Wims said. “We tried to bounce back from it. Unfortunately it helped them out.”
Michel’s penalty would be the last called on Georgia, but by that time the game was out of hand. The Bulldogs looked dejected.
When the game ended, outside linebacker Lorenzo Carter immediately walked off the field without taking his helmet off. Others followed. Strength and conditioning coach Aaron Feld pointed at players to return to the field, but, with a towel draped over his head, offensive lineman Kendall Baker said, “I can’t.”
The loss obviously hurt the Bulldogs. In a cramped room next to the visitors’ locker room, a normally talkative and positive Carter answered with few words. Asked how much penalties hurt the Bulldogs in this game, Carter said, “a lot.”
The flags were not the sole reason Georgia lost this game. Smart gave Auburn credit and said the Tigers’ physicality and play at the line of scrimmage won them the game. However, Smart and Georgia’s players all said penalties were a factor in the game’s lopsided final score.
“Emotionally, it's tough when you're in that environment and things aren't going well,” Smart said. “But you don't respond with undisciplined things and unsportsmanlike conducts. That's not indicative of who we are. That's not Georgia's brand of football. We resorted to tactics we don't usually do.”