Man, what a Saturday. That’s the type of game that feels so good and so bad all at the same time. My emotions were all over the place. I was up, down, vindicated, confused, heart-broken. It was a wild ride. And at the end of it all as I walked out of Jordan-Hare not really sure exactly how I felt, it hit me. We almost won. We SHOULD have won. Are we back? Almost back? I think we’re back?!
I mean listen, I know we aren’t actually, fully, all-the-way back to where we want to be and all. I know we were all praying for a little magic there towards the end and it felt a little unanswered. And just last week, according to a lot of our fans, we didn’t stand a chance. But you know what I didn’t hear as I left the stadium? I didn’t hear complaining and negativity.
I didn’t sense our fans settling into that “Auburn being Auburn” mentality that some of our less faithful seem to speak into existence every chance they get. I don’t know if there’s a word for both disappointment and hope all wrapped into one but if there is, I was surrounded by it.
On the ride home I replayed moments of the game in my mind, quietly celebrating what went right and questioning the things that had gone wrong. The margins of success and error are so small in close wins and losses, but I had a few thoughts.
Let’s start with the good…
1. We committed to the run early, stuck with it and it payed off. The Tigers’ 219 rushing yards on 43 attempts is the most allowed by a Georgia defense since 2018. The play-calling seemed more run-focused until well into the third quarter of the game and Jarquez Hunter’s 19 carries is the most in a game by any ball carrier this season.
Payton Thorne remembered he could run again this week and took off with 12 carries of his own, including a sneaky 61 yard run down the sideline. All in all, It was just a good day for our ball carriers. The play calling seemed to be much more focused on intentional and well-schemed running plays and I fully expect that to continue and be expanded upon throughout the remainder of the season.
2. I’m just going to assume that some offensive lineman and a certain quarterback must have read my article last week because although we gave up 3 sacks, Thorne looked much more comfortable as a whole with his protection. He completed 11 of 20 passes and virtually every incompletion touched a receiver’s hands. His check downs were quicker, his passes more accurate and he made smart decisions with his legs when the situation called for it. Yeah, we’ve still got some offensive opportunities that I’ll discuss in a little while but I don’t see how anyone could argue that there wasn’t obvious improvement over last week.
3. Our defensive line held Georgia to only 107 rushing yards on 30 attempts. That’s good enough for a win 9 times out of 10 and I’ll take that performance any day of the week. They weren’t perfect and I would have liked to see more quarterback pressure and a few sacks, but in my opinion they held up their end nicely and put us in the best possible position that they could to get a win.
And now the bad…
1. Third Down continues to be our kryptonite. If you thought converting 3 of 15 last week was bad then only managing 2 of 12 this week is just plain awful. Here’s a strange stat for you. We somehow magically managed 17 first downs while going 2 for 12 on third down and 1 for 3 on fourth down. Crazy, right? And Georgia? 19 first downs while going 8 for 13 on third down with no fourth down attempts.
That’s the difference maker in this game, guys. Just a handful more third down conversions is the difference in us being in field goal range a couple of times or sparking a touchdown drive. It’s Georgia not having enough time to complete that final touchdown drive because earlier in the game we were able to eat that time off the clock instead. Why are we so successful on our first two downs and so stagnant on third? Is it Scheme? Play-calling? Mistakes? Whatever it is, we need to get it figured out.
2. Last week I wasn’t sure what the weakest link in our offense was but I think we’ve finally figured out what’s wrong. Our receivers have no hands. Where’d they go, you ask? Who knows. Maybe they lost them to hypothermia from all of the Freeze warnings. I mean, they were there for awhile and then by the 4th quarter, poof. Gone.
Of Payton Thorne’s 9 incompletions, 7 or 8 were catchable balls. Maybe not by mere mortals like us, but we should expect a little more from a D1 athlete. You know that third down problem I was talking about up above? Our receivers played a huge part of it.
3. Our secondary in the 3rd and 4th quarter gradually fell apart. He might be Zeus himself, but what Brock Bowers did to us wasn’t as much about skill as it was opportunity. Our coverage was weak. The guy was running around the middle of the field wide open like he was on the officiating crew. I keep reading about how we had no answer for him. Umm, the answer was obvious. Follow him. Don’t be 10 yards away from him at all times. I didn’t really have much criticism for our secondary early in the game but what happened in the second half, especially the 4th quarter, was embarrassing.
My final thoughts…
What did I say last week? I said it’s a rebuilding year and I said we are going to win more games than you thought we would. Well the rebuild looks like it’s well on the way and the remaining games are starting to look a lot more winnable. Losing a big rivalry game is hard. Losing one in the final minutes is torture. But almost knocking off a rival in your rebuilding year when they’re ranked #1? Well that sounds just like how a new era begins.