No. 1 Georgia Bulldogs survive another close call vs. Auburn
1 / 49
Georgia tight end Brock Bowers (19) scores a 40-yard touchdown reception for the go-ahead touchdown during the fourth quarter of their game Auburn at Jordan-Hare Stadium, Saturday, Sept. 30, 2023, in Auburn, Al. Georgia won 27-20. Bowers had eight catches for 157 yards and one touchdown. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)
AUBURN, Ala. — Georgia will lose eventually. That’s inevitable. But the Bulldogs didn’t Saturday, and those who watched them against Auburn in the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry will tell you just how fortunate – and gritty – they are to have won again.
This time the No. 1-ranked Bulldogs (5-0, 2-0 SEC) came out on top 27-20. They won again, quite simply, because they refused to lose.
“When you come back and win on the road, it says something about your team and your character,” said Kirby Smart, who won his 86th game of 101 as Georgia’s coach. “Nobody panicked. I don’t know how good a team we’ve got; I really don’t. I’m not going to sit here and proclaim some unbelievable team. But I do think our team believes in each other.”
Georgia trailed 10-0 early, and the score was tied 20-20 late. But then the Bulldogs remembered who they were and put together a 7-play, 75-yard drive that ended on Bowers’ 40-yard catch and run for the winning touchdown with 2:52 to play. Those 40 yards gave Bowers 157 yards receiving on eight catches for the game. All but 9 of those yards came in the second half.
“Bowers did what he does. The guy’s amazing,” Smart said. “It’s a wonder why you don’t just go to him every play.”
The victory kept alive a laundry list of streaks for the two-time defending national champion Bulldogs. Namely, Georgia won its 32nd consecutive regular-season game and 22nd consecutive overall that started with the 2021 Orange Bowl in the College Football Playoff.
The Bulldogs will put those numbers on the line again Saturday when they play host to an undefeated Kentucky team (5-0, 2-0) that downed No. 22 Florida 33-14 on Saturday.
It only seemed like the Bulldogs were throwing to Bowers every play in the fourth quarter. The truth is quarterback Carson Beck found him only four times in the last period. But Bowers turned those catches into 121 yards. One of them was a one-handed job. He had another amazing reception that was nullified by penalty.
“It wasn’t just me,” Bowers said afterward. “There were a bunch of other guys doing their jobs, too.”
That included Beck, who put together a career-defining performance in the second half. Making his first career start on the road, the fourth-year junior let an interception and two other offensive turnovers by the Bulldogs rattle him. A fourth turnover was overruled by video review.
With the score tied at 20-20, Beck led the Bulldogs on a seven-play, 75-yard touchdown, converting a pair of third downs along the way. Georgia was an incredible 8-for-13 on third downs in the game.
Often, it was Bowers who ended up in the ball in his hands on those conversions.
“He makes plays,” said Beck, who finished with 313 yards on 23-of-33 passing with a TD and an interception. “The coverages they were running against us, it just kept dictating that the ball was going to him. That happens sometimes.”
Said Auburn’s first-year coach, Hugh Freeze: “Nineteen’s a handful. We didn’t do a great job of guarding him.”
But it wasn’t only Bowers. Flanker Ladd McConkey, just back from a six-week injury hiatus, caught four passes, two of which converted third downs. Daijun Edwards led the Bulldogs with 76 rushing yards. Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint had two huge catches for 44 yards.
And Georgia’s defense came up with some huge plays, as well. For what it meant, none was bigger than the interception safety Malaki Starks made for the Bulldogs that closed the door on the Tigers with 1:28 to play. Georgia was able to just take a knee on back-to-back plays after Starks’ 21-yard return to the Auburn 40.
But equally important were a pair of back-to-back stops of Auburn’s Jarquez Hunter by Jamon Dumas-Johnson and Smael Mondon late in the first half. The Tigers were facing third-and-1 at the Georgia 12, then fourth-and-1, when the middle linebackers stepped up stopped him for no gain.
Freeze was answering questions afterward about not trying to kick a field goal in that situation.
“We were going to be aggressive,” Freeze said. “You don’t beat the No. 1 team in the country without taking risks.”
The way the Tigers were running the football, it’s not surprising they thought they could get 1 yard. Auburn finished with 219 yards rushing, with 125 of that coming on the legs of quarterbacks Payton Thorne (92) and Robby Ashford (33). Hunter added 59 a touchdown.
Another slow start put the Bulldogs in the predicament they found themselves. They were shut out again in the first quarter and fell behind 10-0. That drops Georgia’s first-quarter average for the season to 3.4 points over the first five games.
Asked why they’ve played so poorly in the first quarter, Smart laughed. “I wish we had an answer. Can you help me?”
Fortunately, the Bulldogs continue to play better in the second quarter. Thanks to two sustained drives that totaled 21 plays and 117 yards, Georgia was able to send the game to halftime with the score tied 10-10.
That felt pretty good with the Bulldogs due to receive the second-half kickoff. But after they did, Oscar Delp saw his over-the-middle reception from Beck punched loose from behind by defensive lineman Marcus Harrison. Auburn linebacker Jalen McLeod recovered at the 32, and three consecutive runs resulted in a 9-yard TD by Ashford and a sudden 17-10 lead for the home team.
It looked like the Tigers got the ball away from Georgia again on the first play of the next possession when they recovered an apparent fumble by Edwards. But video review showed the senior running back was down before he lost his grip on the ball.
Georgia punted at the end of that possession, but wouldn’t on the next three. Like last year when they came up off the mat against Missouri and Ohio State, and this year when they trailed South Carolina, the Bulldogs insist they never thought they were going to lose.
“We’d like to dominate every week and blow everybody out, but that’s not the way it works, it’s not the way the SEC works, especially on the road,” Beck said. “I give credit to Auburn. They played super hard, and they were tough. But we kept pushing and we persevered.”
Smart’s true feelings about the night were vividly on display when he flung his trademark visor into the stands as the Bulldogs left Pat Dye Field for the visitors’ locker room.
“I don’t think people truly respect what playing on the road in the SEC, not as much as I do,” Smart said. “It’s really, really, really hard to win on the road in the SEC. … No. 1 vs. whoever, new program or whatever, it doesn’t matter. The passion is always there, and it’s hard to win on the road. We did, but we’ve got to get better.”