Isaiah McKenzie had to take matters into his own hands.
With the offenses in the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry stuck in neutral, the dynamic kick returner returned a punt 53 yards for a touchdown to give Georgia its first lead over Auburn at 17-10 with 9:28 remaining in the game.
McKenzie’s record-setting fifth career return for a touchdown helped the Bulldogs roll to a 20-13 win, and take an overall 56-55-8 edge in the series between the two storied programs.
“I felt that he may have out-kicked his coverage,” McKenzie said. “I just had a feeling that I just needed to catch the ball and do what I had to do.”
Auburn’s early lead evaporated as a result of a disastrous second half on offense that saw the Tigers go three-and-out on four straight possessions, switch quarterbacks and turn the ball over on a fumble.
The special teams touchdown came with Kevin Phillips punting from the end zone, and Georgia added a field goal after Sean White fumbled inside Auburn’s own 20-yard line.
Auburn coach Gus Malzahn turned to the injured White with Jeremy Johnson struggling to get the passing game going early. The junior was 8 of 13 for 27 yards and an interception through three quarters.
White, still wearing a left knee brace, threw four straight incomplete passes, and Georgia used the opening to tie the game 10-10.
“In the second half, we didn’t do a very good job of getting that initial first down,” Malzahn said. “That is when we are at our best. I think we got one first down in the third quarter, and just had a few in the fourth quarter. We just never got in that rhythm like we needed to be.”
Auburn had bottled Georgia up on a third-and-1 inside the red zone with Carl Lawson bringing down Terry Godwin down for a loss of 3 yards, but a face mask call on Rudy Ford gave the Bulldogs a fresh set of downs at the 12-yard line.
D’Andre Walker scored three plays later on a 4-yard run with 1:20 left in the third quarter.
Auburn led for much of the afternoon thanks to a near-perfect first possession. Jeremy Johnson went 4 of 4 for 19 yards while the Tigers’ trio of running backs all made key contributions on the drive.
Jovon Robinson broke a 23-yard run around the right side of the line to get Auburn inside the red zone, and Kerryon Johnson scored from the 8-yard line from the wildcat formation to cap off an 11-play, 75-yard drive.
Georgia had a chance to tie the score early in the second quarter, but couldn’t punch it in from the goal line thanks to an impressive stand from Auburn’s defense.
Running back Sony Michel rushed it down to the 2-yard line, where the Bulldogs had three chances to get a yard for the first down, or two yards for the touchdown.
Michel fumbled on second down, and recovered the ball for no gain. On third down, Devaroe Lawrence stuffed Michel at the line of scrimmage.
Georgia decided to go for it on fourth down for the second time on the drive, but quarterback Greyson Lambert missed Malcolm Mitchell on the left side with a short slant pass.
The momentum from the turnover on downs didn’t last long for Auburn as Jeremy Johnson threw his seventh interception of the season on the Tigers’ ensuing drive.
Defensive back Malkom Parrish made a leaping grab on a pass intended for Tony Stevens at Georgia’s 40-yard line.
“Uncharacteristic…” Malzahn said, of the turnovers. “We had been protecting the football extremely well and the three turnovers were big.”
Auburn’s defense continued its strong first half by forcing Georgia to settle for a field goal following Johnson’s turnover.
The Bulldogs drive stalled in the red zone when they made the ill-advised decision to throw for a first down facing a third-and-1 at Auburn’s 23-yard line.
Cassanova McKinzy burst through the line of scrimmage, and wrapped up Lambert for a loss of 10 yards on the play. Marshall Morgan hit a 40-yard field goal with 4:00- left in the first half to cut Auburn’s lead to 7-3.
“I lost my balance,” McKinzy said. “We needed a stop, but I really didn’t think I was going to get it. I regained my footing. It was just a good play for our team.”
Auburn pushed its lead back up to seven points before the end of the first half thanks to a 42-yard field goal from Daniel Carlson. It was his 13th consecutive field goal made, setting a new school record.
Carlson added a 38-yard field goal in the final two minutes to make it 14 in a row.
* Auburn center Austin Golson was injured on Auburn’s opening drive of the second half. He received treatment at the trainer’s table while backup Devonte Danzey warmed up. Golson remained with trainers as Danzey entered the game. Golson didn’t return to the game.