Georgia’s defense can look pretty good at times, but it tends to be at its worst in the moments of truth.
That definitely was the case Saturday night against Auburn on Saturday night. The Bulldogs appeared to have Auburn dead to rights on their final possession of the game. The Tigers faced fourth-and-18 at their own 27 with 36 seconds remaining in the game. Auburn did what it had to do, which was to throw deep down the middle of the field.
It appeared at first the Bulldogs had the play well defended. Georgia’s safeties were playing deep and had Ricardo Louis bracketed down the hash mark. In fact, it appeared as though Tray Matthews was set to intercept the ball. But at the last second, Josh Harvey-Clemons reached for the ball, and it deflected off his hands and over Matthews’ head.
Louis kept running, and the ball came right to him. He scored easily as Harvey-Clemons and Matthews fell to the ground.
“It wasn’t a fluke play,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “They launched it out there and were hoping for a miracle. But when you’re playing that type of prevent defense, the goal is to not let anybody behind you. The goal is to knock the ball down and end the game. It just didn’t happen.”
As the free safety, it ultimately is Matthews’ job to make sure no player ends up behind him.
“I talked to him,” Richt said. “I told him it’s a team sport and what we had to do is learn from these things. There are other plays that happen throughout the game that could have a difference. But it seems like it all came down to that one play.”
The last play spoiled an otherwise good performance by Matthews, who returned to the starting lineup Saturday after missing four games with a hamstring injury. He replaced freshman Quincy Mauger, who started the previous five games. Matthews started the first four games of the season.
Matthews finished with 12 tackles, including 10 solo stops. He did that despite having to leave the game for a short time with a cut mouth late in the first half.
The fourth-down conversion, as that last play turned out to be, was the second of the day on two attempts for Auburn. Teams are now 12-of-16 against Georgia on fourth down this season.
Georgia has struggled mightily on third down all season, too, coming into the game 10th in the SEC, with opponents converting at a 40 percent rate. The Bulldogs were better Saturday, stopping Auburn on 10 of 15 conversion attempts.
Richt gets flagged: Richt was flagged for a personal foul for arguing a fumble call that resulted in Auburn retaining possession in the second quarter. Richt thought that Harvey-Clemons recovered the ball.
“I guess I wasn’t pleasant enough in my disagreement with what happened,” Richt said. “I don’t know if I’ll get in trouble or not, but what I saw was a set of legs here of an Auburn player on the ball trying to get the ball. I saw Josh Harvey-Clemons wrapped around his legs and the ball, and I thought surely he had possession.”
Penalties were an issue for Georgia. The Bulldogs were flagged eight times for 60 yards. Only two of those penalties came in the second half, but both were personal fouls.
“We did some things that cost us throughout the game,” Richt said. “We’ve got to do better. Of course, they did some things that could have cost them, too. But when you win, you don’t think about them.”
Blocked kick: Freshman linebacker Leonard Floyd blocked a 36-yard field-goal attempt with Georgia trailing 20-7 in the second quarter. It led to an interception with 2:40 remaining in the half that Auburn converted into a touchdown. It was the second consecutive game with a blocked field goal. Jordan Jenkins had one last week against Appalachian State.
Etc.: Junior linebacker Ramik Wilson finished the game with a career-high 18 tackles, including 12 solo stops. Entering the game, he ranked as the SEC leader in tackles with 92, and his previous high was 15 in the road win over Tennessee. … Murray added the Georgia record for career pass attempts to his long list. He has 1,455, which ranks third in SEC history, passing former Bulldog David Greene. Also in the second half, Murray set the SEC career record for completions with his 896th on a 5-yard touchdown pass to Rantavious Wooten that made the score 37-24 with 9:35 left. Murray’s career tally in that category is now 903 … The Bulldogs had 4 yards of offense on six plays in the entire first quarter. Auburn had the ball for 12:07 of the game’s first 15 minutes. … Sophomore fullback Merritt Hall got his first start of the season.