A banged up and bruised Auburn picked the wrong time to get into a dogfight.
Georgia rallied in the second half thanks to an early pick-six from defensive back Maurice Smith. Rodrigo Blankenship’s 45-yard field goal with 13:44 to left in the game gave the Bulldogs a 10-7 lead.
Georgia closed out the 13-7 victory to end its rival’s hopes of a run to the SEC Championship in Atlanta.
Auburn was without the SEC’s leading rusher Kamryn Pettway, who travelled to Athens, but sat out with a leg injury.
Pettway’s absence combined with quarterback Sean White’s achy shoulder robbed a once explosive Auburn offense of its two most reliable options.
The Tigers didn’t get a first down in the second half with seven straight three-and-outs following the interception. White didn’t complete a pass in the second half until there was 2:09 remaining in the game.
“They outplayed us,” Auburn running back Kerryon Johnson said. “They obviously wanted to win the game more than we did. That is what they did. They came out and beat us.”
Auburn coaches were reluctant to let White throw the ball down field in the first half, rotating through a series of players under center including backup John Franklin III, Kerryon Johnson and Chandler Cox.
The Tigers tried a different approach in the second half choosing to air it out coming out of the break. White dropped back in the pocket three straight times, but none of his throws were on target.
“We just never got in a rhythm,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “We never got in our pace. We were fighting uphill offensively.”
White’s third-down pass to Will Hastings sailed into the hands of Smith, who weaved his way 34-yards to the end zone to tie the game 7-7.
“The touchdown got the crowd invigorated,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. “When Mo hit the pick-six, it got electric. It fired the defense up and inspired the offense. We got a lot of energy from that.”
The Alabama graduate transfer was the subject of a prolonged offseason battle with former coach Nick Saban to get his release from the school to reunite with Kirby Smart.
Saban relented allowing Smith to join Smart, a move that ultimately locked up a spot for his former team in the SEC Championship game.
“This makes it definitely worth while,” Smith said. “It’s a blessing. For me to be a part of this team and be able to help the team, I just love it. I was relieved [after the touchdown]. I had been wanting to get one for the longest time and I ended up getting it and God blessed me and the defense did a great job blocking."
The only success Auburn had moving the ball Saturday night came on a 15-play, 80-yard drive in the first quarter.
Kerryon Johnson, who started for Pettway, scored on a 3-yard run out of the wildcat formation to give the Tigers an early 7-0 with 28 seconds left on the clock.
Johnson touched the ball eight times on the drive with Eli Stove and Stanton Truitt each making key contributions as well. Stove gave Georgia problems on the edge running Auburn’s patented jet sweep.
“They are a run-first team and not having their big back was tough,” Smart said. “He’s a great player. It’s tough that he wasn’t healthy, but they ran well with the others. Our kids struck and played hard tonight.”
White was 6 of 20 for 27 yards and sacked twice. His 14-yard pass out of Auburn’s own end zone late in the first half to Tony Stevens to get him out of single digits.
While White stumbled for a second straight year against Georgia, his counterpart Jacob Eason enjoyed his debut in the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry.
Eason orchestrated what proved to be the game-winning drive going 7 of 8 for 57 yards to set up Blankenship’s 45-yard field goal.
Georgia gave Auburn an early diet of running back Nick Chubb, but shifted its game plan when Eason had success attacking the Tigers’ secondary. Eason got in a groove early hitting Javon Wims 40-yards down the Bulldogs’ sideline to convert a third-and-12.
Wims made a diving catch while Auburn defensive back Carlton Davis was still searching for the ball in the air. The completion would have given the Bulldogs a fresh set of downs at Auburn’s 17-yard line, but a holding call on left tackle Tyler Catalina negated the play.
Eason went right back on the attack hitting Riley Ridley for a 57-yard gain on Georgia’s second possession.
Auburn defensive back Javaris Davis was called for pass interference on the play, but Ridley reeled the ball in after bobbling it and kept right on going down to the 15-yard line.
Georgia failed to capitalize on its first trip inside the red zone when wide receiver Terry Godwin threw an interception out of the wildcat formation.
The Bulldogs went back to the play at Auburn’s 4-yard line with 2:29 to go with Godwin throwing it to Eason. The quarterback had his hands on the ball, but an Auburn defensive back knocked it loose.
Eason finished the game 20 of 31 for 208 yards.
“He’s growing, he’s getting more confidence and he’s getting better with each game,” Smart said. “He’s an intelligent kid. We need to keep putting him in situations to be successful. He’s competitive with a calm, cool demeanor.”