ATHENS, Ga. — There were cheers followed by silence followed by elation.
Georgia safety Bacarri Rambo broke up a Chris Todd pass at the 2-yard line with 1:16 remaining in the game, then remained motionless on the field for nearly 15 minutes. The crowd sat silent, occasionally rising to chant his name. When he was carted off the field, Rambo raised his arm, a signal to the crowd to rise again, and the Bulldogs’ defense followed suit.
Georgia sacked Todd on third-and-11 and his final heave on fourth down was broken up in the end zone by Bryan Evans and Brandon Boykin to preserve a 31-24 comeback win for the Bulldogs, who have defeated Auburn four straight times.
“It’s tough because you don’t want to see a player go down, but we knew we had to win it for him,” senior defensive tackle Jeff Owens said. “That’s what he said out there. He said to just win it for him. He sacrificed his body on that play, so we knew we had to sacrifice for him also.”
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Rambo’s play thwarted a potential touchdown, but it was his courage that sparked the defense’s final rally.
Linebacker Rennie Curran and several other Bulldogs stood about three feet from Rambo’s motionless body shouting words of encouragement and offering support. After a seemingly endless delay that was broken up only by the chants of “Rambo, Rambo” from the crowd, the freshman safety raised his hand and told his teammates to finish what he started.
“They got him up on the cart, and he started talking to us,” Curran said. “We just let him know he didn’t have anything to worry about it. We were going to win it for him.”
After the game, head coach Mark Richt said Rambo was able to move his arms and legs and did not appear to have any serious long-term injuries, but he was knocked unconscious on the field by the play.
The long layoff left Auburn time to draw up its plans for a third-and-11 play from Georgia 23, trailing by seven, and it left Bulldogs defensive coordinator Willie Martinez enough time to spark his troops.
“They love Bacarri a lot,” Martinez said. “I said a couple of choice words, that I’m sure Bacarri doesn’t want us to let these guys score, and he laid it on the line for us. They were ready to play.”
Todd, who finished the game 20-of-28 for 238 yards and two touchdowns, was sacked by Cornelius Washington for a loss of 7. Auburn followed with two timeouts then drew up a pass play to Mario Fannin in the end zone that Boykin read from the start.
“I knew they were going to throw him the ball, and I was just trying to focus on batting it away,” said Boykin, Rambo’s roommate and close friend. “I managed to get a hand on it, but he still tried to make a play on the ball. Bryan came over and got a hit on him, and I felt great when I saw the ball hit the ground and everybody started cheering.”
The win didn’t come easily, even before Rambo’s injury.
The momentum belonged to Auburn early, and Georgia’s defense looked helpless against the Tigers’ up-tempo offense.
Todd hit a couple of big plays, but short passes and screens and the hurry-up tempo really hurt Georgia’s defense. Todd connected on 9-of-10 passes in the first quarter and Auburn marched for consecutive scores on its first two drives.
Todd hit Darvin Adams three times on the opening drive for gains of 11, 18 and 17 and capped the drive with a 5-yard touchdown to Kodi Burns. After a three-and-out by Georgia, Todd returned to the field and helped the Tigers convert three third-and-longs on their next drive, which culminated with a 31-yard touchdown pass to Terrell Zachary for a 14-0 lead.
“We knew they were going to move the ball, but we were trying to get a feel for them,” Boykin said. “They were minor mistakes on our part, and we knew if we could stop the run game we’d have a chance in the passing game, and that’s what we did.”
Georgia roared back with a bevy of big plays in the passing game.
Quarterback Joe Cox was without star receiver A.J. Green, who left the game with a left shoulder sprain, but hooked up with little-used sophomore Israel Troupe for a 50-yard touchdown in the second quarter.
Cox went back to work in the second half, connecting on big plays to tight end Orson Charles and receiver Tavarres King, both of which set up touchdowns runs by Georgia’s suddenly rejuvenated ground game.
Caleb King scored twice in the fourth quarter for Georgia, including on a 24-yard run with 6:52 left to play that proved to be the difference in the game.
“It was a 25 zone and before the play, (center) Ben (Jones) just said, ‘Stick in behind me,’ and I said ‘OK,’” King said. “I listen to Ben, and I just followed him and scored the touchdown.”
In between, Georgia’s defense made all the right adjustments.
The Tigers scored on a 99-yard kick return by Demond Washington with 14:11 left in the game, but the Bulldogs’ defense held Auburn’s offense to just three points after the first two scoring drives.
“The way we came out in the first quarter, we was on fire,” Auburn tailback Ben Tate said. “Then we just kind of fizzled out. We just have to learn how to keep our foot down on the pedal and finish teams.”
The key to the turnaround was the determination of the defense, Martinez said. While Rambo’s words inspired the Bulldogs on the final two plays, the team had kept its spirits up throughout.
“That second series was the most disappointing because we got them in third down three times, and we let them off the hook,” Martinez said. “But the guys weren’t down. They were really up and we were telling them, ‘Hey, we’re right there. We’ve just got to execute and get off the field on third down.”
It turned out to be a bitter disappointment for Auburn, whose seniors will wrap up their careers without a win over the Bulldogs.
For Georgia, the win meant bowl eligibility, and more importantly, it meant there was still more to play for this season.
“I just want to finish up this season strong and have something to be proud of,” Cox said. “There’s a lot of things that we wish we could have done better. But we know what type of team we can be, and what’s in the past is in the past. All we can worry about is how we finish these last few games, and we’ve made some good steps toward how we want to finish. Now it’s just a matter of keeping it going.”