Games between the Georgia Bulldogs and the Auburn Tigers are not always close---see 2004 and 2007---but, historically, this has been a series hallmarked by tight ballgames, as befits a rivalry as ancient and storied as this one. Of the 113 clashes between these two teams, 49 have been decided by seven or fewer points. On average, more than two out of every five meetings between the Bulldogs and the Plainsmen have been nailbiters. So it was in Sanford Stadium last night.
Georgia recorded eighteen first downs and Auburn recorded eighteen first downs. Georgia converted five third downs and Auburn converted five third downs, which is baffling to me, since it seemed like the Tigers converted at least a dozen third-and-longs. Georgia ran the ball 38 times and Auburn ran the ball 38 times. Georgia tallied 342 yards of total offense, a mere 33 feet shy of the mark attained by Auburn. Had the Tigers held the pigskin for 47 fewer seconds, the time of possession would have been exactly even, which is remarkable, given the decided advantage the Plainsmen held in the early going. Despite the similar endings of the respective contests, this game, unlike the South Carolina game, was every bit as close as the score indicated.
It didn’t look that way from the get-go, though. Half an hour before kickoff, I entered Sanford Stadium accompanied by an overwhelming sense of dread, assured of the doom that awaited the ‘Dawgs, and nothing I saw in the opening period disabused me of my dour preconceptions. Auburn opened the game with a nine-play, 74-yard drive that ended in a touchdown. Georgia responded by going three and out on an opening drive that lost four yards and included a Bulldog false start penalty. The Plainsmen proceeded to go 82 yards in eleven snaps to take a 14-0 lead and the Red and Black answered by picking up two yards in three plays before punting. In short, it was exactly the contest I anticipated it would be. After fifteen minutes of clock time had elapsed, the hedges were in jeopardy and the Tiger faithful were getting ready to party like it was 1999.
Joe Cox looked like Joe Cox at his worst . . . which is to say, he looked like Brandon Cox. Potentially big plays came up just short and the Bulldogs’ increasingly predictable menu of sweeps and screens routinely failed to gain. Willie Martinez’s defense played the way we have come to expect it to play. Seemingly one play out of every three went well for the Georgia D until the inevitable completion to the open receiver behind the linebackers and in front of the safeties. My 56-7 prediction wasn’t looking quite so outlandish as the second period got underway.
When we looked up at the scoreboard as the first half unfolded, we saw few statistics from which to take heart, but there were a couple for those among the Bulldog faithful who were willing to squint and search for them. Georgia had incurred fewer penalties and had shown at least a modicum of discipline, as when the defender very deliberately turned loose of the Auburn ballcarrier he had ridden out of bounds before drawing a flag for administering a late hit. The ‘Dawgs hadn’t moved the ball, but they hadn’t turned it over, either. It was, as my uncle has been known to remark, bad, but it wasn’t so bad.
Then Cox connected with Israel Troupe on a 50-yard touchdown pass to put Georgia on the board and allow the Classic City Canines to go to the locker room at halftime down by a single score. A 51-yard Blair Walsh field goal cut the deficit to four points and Washaun Ealey capped off a four-and-a-half-minute drive spanning 82 yards in eight plays with a one-yard touchdown run to give the Bulldogs the lead. Son of a gun, we were in this thing! It had taken a decidedly lucky bounce on a would-be interception that turned into an Orson Charles reception, but the Bulldogs were out in front in a game that had appeared as though it might get out of hand.
Auburn wasn’t done, of course; the Tigers’ turnaround has been too genuine, and the spirit of the rivalry is too strong, for us ever to expect the Plainsmen to curl up into the fetal position at the first sign of adversity. A doinked field goal by Wes Byrum---whom Orson Swindle had told me at Tent City earlier in the evening that he would run down with his automobile if given the opportunity---sent the contest to the final quarter tied at 17.
Tavarres King redeemed his earlier drop of what ought to have been a touchdown pass by snagging a 47-yard reception on the first snap of the fourth stanza. One play later, Caleb King was in the end zone and the hometown heroes had retaken the lead. The Georgia edge lasted only as long as it took Demond Washington to take a pretty decent kickoff at the one yard line and weave 99 yards downfield for the tying touchdown.
The Bulldogs got the ball back and punted. The Plainsmen took possession and Reshad Jones intercepted a Chris Todd pass. A personal foul penalty against---wait for it---a team other than Georgia set up the Red and Black inside the Auburn 40 yard line. Three Ealey carries gave the ‘Dawgs a first down inside the 25 and Caleb King covered the remaining ground for a touchdown.
Once again, the Tigers refused to run and hide. Auburn held the ball for the next fourteen plays, running almost six minutes off the clock while marching 40 yards downfield. The Plainsmen picked up five first downs in the course of the drive, the last of which came on a fourth-down conversion that carried the visitors to the Georgia 22 yard line.
On first down, Ben Tate was halted for a one-yard loss. On second down, an electrified Sanford Stadium was given a severe scare when Bacarri Rambo went down after delivering the touchdown-saving hit that separated the intended receiver from the football. There were two more downs to be played, but, truthfully, the game was over when Rambo, strapped immobile to a backboard and lifted onto the cart upon which he would be whisked away to receive medical attention, raised his right arm and gave the crowd the thumbs up that signaled to us that he would be all right. There would be no 2005-like fourth-down heroics by the Tigers this night.
Inevitably, the Alabamians moved backwards. Cornelius Washington dropped Todd for a seven-yard loss on third down. Back-to-back Auburn time outs could not stop the roaring crowd from inducing perhaps the most flagrant false start in the history of college football. Todd’s final desperate toss on fourth and 23 fell incomplete, and all that was left was what my father calls "the prettiest play in football": your quarterback taking a knee to bleed the final seconds from the game clock.
I have yelled that loudly for that long, cheered that lustily and that elatedly, and applauded that strongly and that sincerely, in Sanford Stadium more than once before, but it’s been a while---actually, it’s been exactly two years, since the last time our guys beat these guys in this venue, in a game that yielded a victory only slightly more stirring than this one---and, despite what my head shrewdly tells me, there was no convincing my heart in that moment that there has ever been anything wrong with being a Georgia Bulldog that beating the Auburn Tigers couldn’t fix.
Oh, I know this doesn’t cure all our ills; a loss at historic Grant Field in two weeks appears all but certain, and a victory over the Kentucky Wildcats is far from a sure thing with Rambo and fellow injury victim A.J. Green sidelined for the duration. Nevertheless, for all the faults that fairly might be found with the Bulldogs’ performance between the hedges last night, I defy anyone to deny the truth of this statement: Georgia’s win over Auburn last night marked the best all-around performance by a Red and Black team since the win over Hawaii in the 2008 Sugar Bowl.
The foregoing statement probably is more of an indictment of the 22 games that preceded last night’s triumph than a praise of this latest Bulldog victory, but, at this point, I’ll take it, warts (which admittedly and undeniably were there) and all. Maybe it was a "dead cat bounce" and maybe it was the start of a 2006-like stretch run, but, either way, it was a fourth straight win over our oldest and biggest rival for the first time in my lifetime, and that, in my book, is cause for celebration, no matter what the occasion.
After the game, I went into the Tate Center to use the facilities---in the course of a tense game against a major rival, I become so focused that I essentially experience a cessation of all bodily functions, so I tend to come down from the rarefied air of game day by exiting the stadium and realizing, "I have to go to the bathroom and get something to eat, stat!"---and I found myself in line behind an Auburn fan. Since we both were standing there, I thought the civilized thing to do would be to extend my hand and say, "Good game," so I did.
He looked at me out of the corner of his eye and sarcastically snorted, "Yeah, ‘good game.’" He refused to shake my hand. I didn’t say another word to him; he took care of his business at his urinal and I took care of my business at mine, but it was a satisfying exchange that confirmed the basic correctness of my prejudices against his kind and reminded me why this rivalry matters, why this victory matters, and why I hate Auburn.
Go ‘Dawgs! Auburna delenda est!