Georgia thought it had something go its way and could begin a comeback from a two-score deficit against Auburn.
A third-down pass from Jarrett Stidham was ruled incomplete upon replay review, and Georgia had Mecole Hardman set to return a punt and use his speed to give it improved field position to start the drive.
Seconds later, any hopes for a momentum change were squandered.
Auburn punter Aidan Marshall booted a lofty punt and Hardman tried to race under it and call a fair catch at the Bulldogs’ 23-yard-line. But as he tried to get his arms under the football, Hardman muffed it and Tigers’ linebacker Darrell Williams was at the bottom of the pile and came up with the recovery.
“It was a crazy spin on the ball,” Hardman said. “There’s no excuse or reason for why I dropped it. I should have caught it all the way in, or at least recovered it.”
At that moment, the emotion on each side differed vastly. Auburn knew it would have a shortened field and an opportunity to essentially put the game out of reach with a three-score lead.
So, players eagerly jumped up-and-down with arms extended outward to indicate the change of possession. Four plays later, Stidham kept a read-option and waltzed into the end zone for a touchdown.
On a contrasting note, Hardman sat on the Georgia bench with his head down and a sense of regret was palpable. Hardman had developed a history of drops throughout the season -- mainly on big-potential plays as a wide receiver -- and the miscue as a returner adds another chapter.
“I put all of the blame on me and it was a great changing point in the game,” Hardman said.
Hardman’s teammates, however, took a supportive approach when the 5-foot-11 versatile athlete made his way to the sideline.
“When those things happen, there’s nothing about it you can change,” said Georgia linebacker Roquan Smith, who also sees significant action on special teams’ units. “It’s the past at that point. We can’t blame or anything.”
Prior to the fumble, Hardman was a difference-maker for the Bulldogs on many opportunities. Auburn place-kicker Daniel Carlson didn’t record a touchback on nine kickoffs, and the Tigers also had four punts. On those 12 opportunities, Hardman accrued 185 total return yards and may have added to the final line if it weren’t for getting tripped on two occasions.
But when his performance is revisited, the one turnover will stand out as it cemented Auburn’s momentum in a 40-17 defeat.
“It’s tough on Mecole because he catches hundreds and hundreds of those punts,” Smart said. “He wanted to run up and get under it, but he didn’t get his arms tucked. Mecole is going to make a lot of plays around here, and he’s starting to gain confidence with what you saw today.”
The fumble was one of many miscues for Georgia which Smart deemed uncharacteristic and surprising. Throughout the season, the Bulldogs rarely committed a compilation of self-inflicting mistakes, but that was different in front of a hostile environment at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
But the reason for the large margin of defeat was greater than a few undisciplined plays.
“They dominated us,” Smart said.