Georgia didn’t officially lock up a spot in the Southeastern Conference championship game Saturday, but it was hard to tell by the condition of its victorious Sanford Stadium locker room.
Georgia Bulldogs wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell (26) celebrates after making a big play in the first quarter of the game against the Auburn Tigers at Sanford Stadium in Athens, Ga., on Saturday, November 12, 2011. (Daniel Shirey/Correspondentfirstname.lastname@example.org)
Water bottles, orange peels and tape were everywhere on a soaked floor when the doors swung open after the players were done jumping up and down in celebration.
The 14th-ranked Bulldogs destroyed No. 24 Auburn, 45-7, behind four touchdown passes from quarterback Aaron Murray and a dominant defensive showing to move one victory away from their first trip to the league championship game since 2005.
“We came out with an edge and a chip on our shoulder,” safety Bacarri Rambo said. “Hopefully we made a statement to everyone that Georgia’s back on the map.”
All that stands between Georgia and a spot in the title game on Dec. 3 in Atlanta is a victory against Kentucky this coming Saturday.
The Wildcats will be coming off a 38-8 pounding by Vanderbilt that dropped them to 1-5 in the SEC.
Georgia (8-2, 6-1 SEC) won its eighth straight game — the longest for the Bulldogs since 1982 — and did it with the pressure on after South Carolina (8-2, 6-2) knocked off Florida, 17-12, before the Bulldogs took the field.
“I can’t hardly think of another game that we played in this stadium where we played as well as a team offense, defense, special teams,” said Mark Richt, who has gone from a coach considered on the hot seat to one with a hot team. “I think everybody kind of fed off each other.”
South Carolina’s win meant a Bulldogs’ loss to Auburn would have sent the Gamecocks to the championship game.
Talk about answering the call.
The 38-point victory was Georgia’s largest against Auburn since a 41-0 win in 1946.
Bring on LSU in the SEC title game?
Auburn (6-4, 4-3) lost at No. 1 LSU 45-10 three weeks before Georgia beat the Tigers 45-7.
“I think we can line up against anybody in the country and compete,” said outside linebacker Jarvis Jones, who had two of Georgia’s five sacks. “We ain’t scared of nobody.”
Georgia stormed to a 35-7 halftime lead, scoring its most points in a first half for in an SEC game since it led Alabama 37-10 in 2003 in a 37-23 win.
Some players said they didn’t know that South Carolina won. Jones said players watched the game on the bus to the game and in their locker room at the Butts-Mehre building and received scoring updates. Richt said he saw South Carolina was leading on the scoreboard during warm-ups.
Georgia’s win snapped a five-game losing streak to ranked teams dating back to the start of last season.
“I don’t know the last time we beat a ranked team,” Rambo said.
That would be Georgia Tech in the regular-season finale in 2009.
Georgia’s SEC wins heading into Saturday were against teams with a combined conference record of 5-24.
“We’ve made baby steps all year and I think today was definitely a big, big stride in the potential of this team,” Murray said. “We’re getting better. It’s a good sign.”
Auburn was limited to minus-12 yards rushing in the first half and was shutout after scoring a touchdown on its opening drive with some trick plays, including a 4-yard touchdown pass from wide receiver C.J Uzomah to Philip Lutzenkirchen.
Georgia held the SEC’s second-ranked rushing offense to 51 yards and 195 total yards.
“When you play an offense like that, the key is obviously to stop the run and make them do something else,” defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said. “We felt like we did that.”
Georgia went 7-for-7 on third-down conversions with two touchdowns before finally punting with 1:23 left in the first half.
“When you’re great on third down and keep the pressure on the defense,” offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said, “you’ve got a chance to score points.”
Murray set the program record for touchdown passes in a season with 27, two more than Matthew Stafford’s mark in 2008. Murray and Stafford are now tied for third on the career list with 51 touchdown passes.
Murray completed 14 of 18 for 224 yards and four touchdowns. He was scorching in the first half when he went 13 of 16 for 216 yards and had all of his touchdown passes.
“There was some tight coverage and he was putting in places where our guys could make the play,” Bobo said.
Rambo returned his seventh interception of the year 24 yards for his first touchdown to make it 28-7. He said that Bobo and offensive line coach Will Friend always kid him that he can make interceptions, but can’t get in the end zone.
“I did whatever it takes to get there, running across the field, jumping over tacklers. I was going to get to the end zone,” he said.
Everybody seems to be finding the end zone lately for the Bulldogs.
They’ve had 14 different players score their 15 touchdowns the past two games.
Murray threw touchdown passes of 8 yards to Tavarres King, 27 to Michael Bennett, 15 to Bruce Figgins and 25 to Malcolm Mitchell. Bennett’s came on a spectacular diving grab in the end zone.
Carlton Thomas rushed for a career-high 127 yards and Isaiah Crowell overcame two fumbles to finish with 132 rushing yards and a touchdown. The two returned after one-game suspensions.
The Bulldogs have beaten Tennessee, Florida and Auburn for the first time in the same season since 1981.
“It feels so good to win and we just don’t want it to stop,” Rambo said.