ATHENS, Ga. — The Auburn football program had the perfect course in front of it. Pass the test against Georgia, and it would play Alabama for the SEC West title.
But the Tigers didn’t look like the team that went on a six-game winning streak to get to that point Saturday in Sanford Stadium. They looked like the team that lost two of their first three games with sputtering, sometimes confusing offense and a defense that kept them in the game for the longest time.
Auburn’s 13-7 loss at Georgia eliminated the Tigers from SEC title and College Football Playoff contention. It also dug up some familiar problems for Gus Malzahn’s team that started to re-emerge in close wins against Ole Miss and Vanderbilt.
Let’s hand out the usual Sunday report card for Auburn’s performance. As always, A+ is a legendary performance, C is average and F is a complete failure. Unfortunately for the Tigers, we start with the last grade in that spectrum.
Sean White clearly wasn’t 100 percent, and more than half of Auburn’s 37 passing yards came on fly sweep plays to Eli Stove. On downfield throws, Auburn got next to nothing through the air. White had his share of misfired passes and bad decisions — his pick-six was the only touchdown of the game for Georgia.
Auburn didn’t go to its backups at all Saturday in Athens. Either John Franklin III isn’t capable of running this offense fully, or Malzahn just won’t take back the No. 1 quarterback reins from White after swinging them around earlier this season. White’s 6-of-20 performance was a complete reversal of what he’s showed at full health throughout 2016.
Running Backs: C
SEC-leading rusher Kamryn Pettway couldn’t play due to his quad injury, but Kerryon Johnson ran with real power as the starter Saturday. He averaged a solid 4.5 yards per touch, scored Auburn’s only touchdown on a hard-nosed run and deserved more carries in certain spots of the game. Johnson is looking more like the running back he was before an ankle injury against Mississippi State.
Things fell apart for Auburn behind Johnson, who admitted he played a role in poor pass protection for White. Stanton Truitt got 2 carries and left with an injury. H-back Chandler Cox couldn’t even line up at running back in the second half due to an injury of his own. A thin running back corps wore down in an average performance, all things considered.
Wide Receivers: D-
The wide receivers didn’t get many opportunities from White, but they didn’t take much of an advantage on the ones that went their direction. Drops were a problem again, especially on crucial third-down plays. Tony Stevens had a single 14-yard catch on 4 targets, and Marcus Davis was responsible for a couple of mishandled throws.
Auburn’s perimeter blocking didn’t seem to have the usual edge, either, against Georgia. A lot of issues came down to White’s inability to get the ball out in an accurate fashion, but the receivers did a struggling offense absolutely zero favors.
Offensive Line: D+
Auburn had arguably its worst game in pass protection since Austin Golson moved from left tackle back to center. Georgia got plenty of opportunities to take shots at a banged-up White on well-time blitzes and even some 1-on-1 matchup victories with the offensive line. Even though Georgia only had 2 sacks and 4 tackles for loss, Auburn lacked that usual push up front.
“I didn’t think it was really anything with their defensive line per se, I thought we were getting hats on hats,” senior left guard Alex Kozan said. “They were kind of overflowing some of our runs. … They were bringing down an extra hat in the run game, and we weren’t popping our runs like we usually were.”
Defensive Line: A-
The Georgia-born combination of Carl Lawson and Montravius Adams wreaked havoc on the Bulldogs offensive line, especially in the first half. The two combined for 2 sacks and 5 tackles for loss, with Lawson coming up with a pair of those on key fourth-quarter drives. Fellow starter Dontavius Russell had a big-time pass breakup near the line of scrimmage, as well.
Auburn’s steady rotation up front got pressure on Georgia true freshman quarterback Jacob Eason from the outset. The defensive line did a decent job against the run, with the all-star duo of Nick Chubb and Sony Michel combining for 156 yards on 33 carries.
The return of Deshaun Davis and Tre’ Williams made a difference for Auburn’s linebackers, which struggled at times against Ole Miss and Vanderbilt. The Tigers looked more solid up the middle and came up with a couple of pass breakups on throws over the middle of the field. T.J. Neal made an impact play from his usual reserve spot by hitting a receiver at the perfect time.
Auburn’s tackling was solid throughout, as Georgia only had 1 carry that went for more than 15 yards. The Tigers relied on their linebackers to come up with a big game against a talented yet inconsistent Georgia offense. They delivered by setting the tone for a defense that allowed six points and made some well-timed adjustments.
Defensive Backs: C-
After back-to-back games of struggling with the quick passes, Auburn’s defense struggled with the deep ball. Eason hit a 57-yarder early and should’ve had a couple more big bombs over 1-on-1 coverage — referees erased one with a holding call and let Auburn stop one with what appeared to be a pass intereference on Javaris Davis.
In the end, Eason completed more than two-thirds of his passes for 208 yards. Auburn couldn’t take advantage of some interception opportunities outside of a terrible trick-play throw from receiver Terry Godwin that landed right in the hands of former Georgia safety Tray Matthews. The Tigers’ defensive backs did well in run support and kept Georgia out of the end zone. But this was far from the standard the Auburn secondary set earlier this season.
Special Teams: C+
Daniel Carlson didn’t allow a kick return, and he went right down the middle on his only chance to put points on the board with an extra point. Kevin Phillips drilled some huge punts — four of them were downed inside the Georgia red zone — but outkicked his coverage on a long return from Isaiah McKenzie.
Auburn had a kick-catch interference call before Georgia’s field-goal drive in the fourth quarter. Kerryon Johnson tried something late with a short kickoff return out of the end zone. But with the way the offense played, there’s no faulting the sophomore for trying to make something happen.
Auburn’s insistence on throwing the ball with a banged-up quarterback created some familiar play-calling woes for the offense. Malzahn and Rhett Lashlee stuck to their guns, and the decision snowballed into a dreadful second half that didn’t produce a single first down. At the very least, a different approach to play calling might have changed things for the Auburn offense.
Defensively, there’s nothing much to fault Auburn. Kevin Steele’s staff made the adjustments in time to keep Georgia out of the end zone. Auburn had a great defensive game plan and took advantage of some gifts from the Bulldogs. The offense’s problems, though, made it feel like nothing much had changed from the down times in the Malzahn era.