Bill Shanks

Georgia’s defense outshines Auburn

Auburn running back Kerryon Johnson (21) tries to escape from Georgia defensive back Maurice Smith during the first half Saturday, November 12, 2016.
Auburn running back Kerryon Johnson (21) tries to escape from Georgia defensive back Maurice Smith during the first half Saturday, November 12, 2016. AP

The Auburn Tigers should have beaten the Georgia Bulldogs on Saturday. They had the better roster, were having the better season and had more on the line.

That was all on paper, and thankfully for Georgia, the game was played on the field. And for the first time all season, Georgia came to play. Forget about the Georgia team that had looked lifeless for two-plus months. Maybe we’ve seen the last of that group.

Georgia kept a team that had scored 34.8 points per game to only seven points. Sure, Auburn didn’t have the SEC’s leading rusher, Kamryn Pettway, available, but that’s not the story.

The Bulldogs’ defense deserves the headlines. For the first time in a while, it won a game for Georgia. It wasn’t Auburn’s star-studded defense that controlled the game. It was Georgia’s.

The Auburn offense, which scored 56 on Arkansas and 40 on Mississippi, was out of sorts all day. The Tigers did not have a first down the entire second half. Georgia came out after halftime with a pick-six from Maurice Smith, and then Auburn punted on the next six possessions until time expired.

Georgia’s young and improving defense has been a budding story for the past month. Trent Thompson and Jonathan Ledbetter are two sophomores leading the way. But it’s the four freshmen — Julian Rochester, Tyler Clark, David Marshall and Michail Carter — who are developing into stars.

Others made plays, as well. Along with Smith’s interception, Reggie Carter had a big sack on the next series. DeAndre Baker and David Bellamy made plays. Auburn was awful on third down in the second half, and it was all due to what Georgia’s defense did to make life miserable for the visitors.

Yes, the offense also helped. Quarterback Jacob Eason was composed, even when he was under pressure from Auburn’s vaunted defensive line. Nick Chubb ran hard all day, finishing with 101 yards on 23 carries. Riley Ridley caught the ball for a change, leading Georgia with 89 receiving yards.

This is the game we’ve waited to see from Georgia. It wasn’t perfect. Auburn did a good job of containing the Bulldogs’ offense, but it was nothing like what Georgia’s defense did to the Auburn offense.

This was a knock-down, drag-out football game. Instead of looking like a team no one else wanted to play, Auburn looked ordinary. Maybe the absence of Pettway made that much of a difference. The Tigers did go more pass-heavy than usual, but that just seems to cheapen what Georgia’s defense accomplished.

Zero first downs in the second half? Wow. Now that’s impressive.

Call this Kirby Smart’s signature win if you wish. He likely won’t disagree. This has been a tough season, as the first-year head coach has found out the hard way that he has a lot of work to do to get this program where he wants it. But a win like this, against an arch-rival, will wipe away many of the earlier season bad memories that most want to forget.

Georgia looked so insignificant two weeks ago in Jacksonville, but they’ve followed it up with a good final-second road win in Kentucky and now an impressive performance against a team still fighting for a title. Instead, Auburn’s dream for a SEC West title is over.

It’s just what Georgia’s program needed — a good win and a chance to stick it to one of its biggest rivals. Smart has been at Alabama for several years, so you know the joy he took in this happening. The time out with two seconds left in the game proved that.

The Auburn defense was supposed to be the best unit on the field Saturday. They had the big names, the All-SEC players. Instead, Georgia’s defense gave its new head coach a win he’ll likely never forget.

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