No. 2 Georgia Bulldogs will be seeing red vs. Auburn

AJC's Sarah K. Spencer and Chip Towers break down the upcoming Georgia-Auburn game. Video by Ryon Horne

ATHENS – The No. 2-ranked Georgia Bulldogs are going to be seeing red when the Auburn Tigers come to town Saturday.

The Bulldogs have been hearing so much about the “red area” and their “red-zone woes” the past two weeks, their eyes ought to be glowing the same color as their home jerseys by the time the 3:30 p.m. kickoff rolls around. Throw in the comments of an Auburn player who believes the Tigers are going to “demolish” Georgia with their run game, and the Bulldogs mightn’t need to flick on their LED red lights in the fourth quarter at Sanford Stadium.

Just the fact that it’s the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry being renewed for the 127th time in 130 years is enough to stir the emotions.

“We’re excited playing in front of the home crowd and just the fact that it’s Auburn,” senior receiver Kearis Jackson said of Saturday’s game, which will be featured as the CBS SEC game of the week. “Three-thirty, prime time, we know it’s going to be electric. It’s hard not to be excited about it.”

So far, Georgia’s home schedule hasn’t offered much to be excited about. The Bulldogs’ most significant games to date have been played away from Sanford Stadium. Those include a pair of SEC road games and the season opener against No. 11-ranked Oregon in a Chick-fil-A Kickoff game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

The two home games Georgia has played were against Group of 5 opponents Samford and Kent State, and the Bulldogs didn’t exactly distinguish themselves in those contests. It was against those opponents that Georgia’s red-zone issues were first revealed. The Bulldogs kicked seven field goals in those two games.

Georgia has kicked six others, giving them a total of 13 for the season. That’s more than twice every other team in the SEC except for Missouri (10) and Kentucky (7).

That’s not a stat that should be dismissed. Those points do, in fact, count. The good work of place-kicker Jack Podlesny has contributed significantly to the Bulldogs averaging 39 points per game. That is the third most in the SEC and third in the SEC and 19th nationally.

But it almost cost Georgia against Missouri. The Bulldogs were 0-for-the-red zone until, trailing by 10 points in the fourth quarter, they managed back-to-back punch-ins to grab their first lead of the game.

“When the field tightens up and shrinks, that’s where the run game is more glaring because the boxes are tighter,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. “You have to block them and run through them.”

That’s finally what happened. Switching from man-to-man blocking on the offensive line to a gap scheme, the Bulldogs finally were able to run the football with some authority. Buoyed by Kenny McIntosh runs of 27 and 22 yards, Georgia averaged 8.9 yards on eight carries on fourth-quarter touchdown drives covering 75 and 68 yards.

The key for the Bulldogs is to take care of business in the red zone earlier in the game. They certainly haven’t had a problem reaching the red zone, defined in football as the 20-yard line and in.

Georgia is averaging 27.6 first downs per game, more than any SEC team and eight more game than the visiting Tigers. It’s what’s happening within the red zone where there’s some question.

It could be argued that the Bulldogs’ tight ends aren’t touching the ball enough deep in opponents’ territory. A considerable matchup advantage against any defense Georgia faces, Brock Bowers (2) and Darnell Washington (0) have only two touchdown catches between them. The 6-foot-4, 230-pound Bowers does have three rushing TDs, two of which came in the red zone.

But the 6-7, 280-pound Washington high-pointing the football on a fade or slant seems like an almost indefensible play.

“We’ve called several plays in those situations for (Washington),” Smart said this week. “Some of them are based on a look, and some of them are based on a protection. There are plays built for a guy to be a red-zone target, and he certainly is that.”

Smart said they had one such play called for Washington against South Carolina, but quarterback Stetson Bennett checked out of it and threw to Bowers instead. He scored on a 6-yard reception.

Meanwhile, as dominant as Bowers’ has been with the football in his hands, he’s not getting the ball enough. Bowers has gained 412 yards and scored five touchdowns this season on only 23 touches. That’s 17.9 yards per touch on just 4.6 per game. Offensive coordinator Todd Monken and/or quarterback Stetson Bennett simply need to call No. 19′s number more.

Ultimately, though, it’s running the football with authority that’s going to get teams in the end zone when offense’s get in close. Georgia’s tight ends are involved intimately in doing that, too. That was on display on the Bulldogs’ most critical offensive play against Missouri.

Trailing 22-12 with 10 minutes to play and facing fourth-and-2 at the Tigers’ 4-yard line, offensive coordinator Monken called a counter play to the right for McIntosh, who was in motion wide left. With both Bowers and Washington lined up on the right, they sealed the corner for McIntosh, who managed to get outside and fight through a tackle for a 3-yard gain. The Bulldogs scored on the next play from the 1, setting the comeback into motion.

Again, it could be worse. Georgia has been incredibly proficient at almost always coming away with points once it reached the red zone. They score 96.8% of the time (30-for-31) in that area, which ranks No. 7 in the nation and No. 2 in the SEC.

But Georgia has managed only 22 touchdowns in that area this season, which ranks eighth among SEC teams. So the Bulldogs will be looking for six points instead of three against the Tigers.

“We just need to be locked in on our assignments,” Jackson said. “When we to the red zone, it’s like we just forget what we’re supposed to be doing. That’s the whole thing. … If one of the 11 messes up, the whole play is ruined.

“So, we’ve just got to all get on the same accord and execute at a high level and we should be able to score (touchdowns).”

Do that, and it will be Auburn that’s seeing red.