By Adesina O. Koiki
ATLANTA – Georgia was not able to defeat Auburn when the Bulldogs were No. 1 in the country. But given a second chance at the Tigers, however, the Bulldogs came up big when it counted the most against War Eagle.
Freshman quarterback Jake Fromm threw two touchdown passes and the Bulldogs defense held Auburn without a point for almost the final 55 minutes as Georgia defeated the Tigers 28-7 in the SEC Championship Game, winning its first conference title since 2005.
In the final College Football Playoff Rankings, Georgia finished ranked No. 3, and it will play Oklahoma in the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif. as part of the College Football Playoff semifinals.
“It’s great to bring [the SEC Championship] back to Georgia,” said Bulldogs head coach Kirby Smart, who played defensive back for Georgia as an undergraduate. “It’s hard to do.”
The difficulty in beating the Tigers, who soundly defeated the Bulldogs 40-17 three weeks ago at Jordan-Hare Stadium in Auburn, was heightened even more when the Tigers took the first drive of the game and marched into the end zone on nine plays, with quarterback Jarrett Stidham connecting with Nate Craig-Myers on a six-yard touchdown.
Déjà vu set in even more for the Bulldogs early on, as their offense only was able to gain 28 yards in the first quarter.
The turning point for Georgia came early in the second quarter as Auburn drove into the red zone to try an open up a two-possession lead. On a third-and-6 from Georgia’s 14-yard line, Stidham was sacked from behind by David Bentley and lost the football. Roquan Smith recovered for Georgia and put a halt on the Tigers’ drive.
With the momentum on their side, the Bulldogs’ offense woke up, with running back Nick Chubb ripping off a 16-yard run on the first play after the turnover. The drive ended on a two-yard touchdown from Fromm to Isaac Nauta to tie the score at the 10:14 mark of the second quarter.
Auburn’s offense was not the same after Stidham’s fumble, and, after it went three-and-out on the next possession after Georgia’s tying score, the Bulldogs took the lead on a 27-yard field goal by Rodrigo Blankenship to cap an eight-play drive.
Auburn was able to embark on a nine-play drive early in the third quarter that ended the Bulldogs’ red zone. When the drive stalled, the Georgia special teams unit stepped up big as it blocked a 31-yard field goal attempt from kicker Daniel Carson to hold onto its three-point advantage.
The only points of the third quarter came on a 35-yard field goal by Blankenship to give the Bulldogs a 13-7 lead with 1:26 left in the quarter.
Georgia put the game away on consecutive drives in the fourth quarter that ended in touchdowns. The first was set up when Auburn running back Kerryon Johnson, who came into the game nursing a shoulder injury suffered in the first meeting between the schools, fumbled the ball on the first play of the fourth quarter near midfield, with Smith once again recovering the fumble. The Bulldogs turned that takeaway into six points four plays later, as Fromm hooked up with Terry Godwin from seven yards out for a touchdown to extend Georgia’s lead to 21-7 after a successful two-point conversion.
Auburn punted on its next possession and Georgia immediately took advantage to put the icing on top, as running back D’Andre Swift exploded up the middle and down left sideline for a 64-yard touchdown run to give the Bulldogs a three-touchdown lead.
Johnson, who gashed the Bulldogs for 167 rushing yards in the first meeting, was held to just 44 yards on the ground on 13 carries. On the other side of the ball, Georgia combined to run for 238 yards after just accumulating 46 yards of rushing in the loss to the Tigers at Jordan-Hare.
“They flipped the script on us from last game,” said Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn.
Georgia will be off until New Year’s Day, when it will play the Sooners in the Rose Bowl: “The Granddaddy of Them All” at 5 PM EST.