Georgia coach Kirby Smart was limping when he left Auburn’s Jordan-Hare Stadium Saturday night. His injury came from a leaping chest bump he exchanged with freshman defensive end Travon Walker.
Walker, at 6-feet-5, 290-pounds without pads, is considerably bigger than the Bulldogs’ 5-10 or so, 210-pounds-or-so head coach. So, there were some physics working against Smart, which was evident in an awkward, one-legged landing.
Smart was asked after the No. 4 Bulldogs' 21-14, SEC-East-clinching win if he regretted the spontaneous move.
“Hell no,” Smart snapped. “I'd chest bump Travon all day. I thought I might lose an ACL, but I was committed to it."
Smart admitted to feeling as much relief as joy as Georgia pulled out its 12th win in its last 15 games against the Tigers. It had been a fairly stress-free night for everybody in red-and-black Saturday night – until the fourth quarter.
The final stanza proved problematic for the Bulldogs, both offensively and defensively. But Walker, the 5-star freshman out of Thomaston, was able to relieve the tension with a five-yard sack of Auburn quarterback Bo Nix with 1:39 to play. Georgia was able to take a knee three times to be able to head to the buses with the season’s ninth victory and an SEC Championship ticket, to boot.
But the fourth-quarter collapse was both unsettling and all too familiar for the Bulldogs. They’ve struggled to put teams away all season.
“I'd rather it be that way than the other,” Smart said of closing out the win. “I'd rather them answer the call than not answer it. I'm just looking for consistency, you know what I mean?”
Georgia’s players definitely know what their coach means. They were seemingly in firm control heading into the final quarter of play. But then the Tigers gained nearly half of their 329 total yards (158) in the game’s last 15 minutes.
Conversely, the Bulldogs managed just two yards and zero first downs in the fourth quarter.
“We’ve just got to get better on offense,” said quarterback Jake Fromm, who saw the Bulldogs have nine three-and-outs in the game. “We’ll get back Sunday morning and we’ll watch this film and then we’ll crush it and flush it. We’ve got to get ready for (Texas) A&M.”
Said linebacker Monty Rice, who led the Bulldogs with 10 tackles: “It sucked to not finish the game the right way. We’ve just got to get back to the drawing board.”
Auburn deserves more than a little credit. The Tigers’ defense features one of the best defensive lines in college football, led by seniors Derrick Brown and Marlon Davidson. But they’re also better than most realize in the secondary.
Auburn entered the game second to UGA in the SEC most defensive statistical categories. That the Bulldogs had done what they’d done in the first three quarters, with 21 points and 249 yards offense, was relatively impressive.
“I can’t say it enough: We’ve got to sustain drives,” said Georgia running back D’Andre Swift, who somehow managed 106 yards on 17 carries. “We’ve got to be better on third down. Third down has always been our strength. We didn’t do well today, not well enough. We’ll go back and look and see what we can do in those situations.”
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The defense had their issues in the fourth quarter, too. Again, Auburn deserves some credit for that as well. Thirteen of Nix’s 30 completions came in the last quarter.
“They just got hot; they got in rhythm,” Smart said. “It wasn’t like we went conservative, we didn’t call different calls, we didn’t bend but don’t break. They hit some plays. They hit tempo, I thought Bo got a little more confident. We had a couple of busts, and when you combine those things, guys get hot.”
The concern for Georgia is, heading into its 11th game of the season, it hasn’t really put together a complete game – offensively and defensively – against an SEC opponent. The hope is that will finally happen against the Aggies next Saturday in Athens.
“Our defense helps us a lot,” Fromm said. “At the same time, we want to play as great as them. We want to be able to dominate on that level. We want to go out and score a lot of points.”
No better time than the present.
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Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC