Bulldogs’ offense struggles to match Tigers’ early intensity

AUBURN, Ala. — Georgia’s offense ignited a monumental run after halftime, but couldn’t make it count on its last series as the Bulldogs fell to Auburn 43-38 on Saturday.

AJ Reynolds/Staff, @ajreynoldsphoto
Georgia wide receiver Rantavious Wooten (17) stretches to make a catch while defended by Auburn defensive back Jonathan Jones (3) during the second half of the NCAA college football game between Georgia and Auburn in Auburn, Ala., Saturday, Nov. 16, 2013.

Georgia’s offense had a tough time moving the ball in the first half, especially through the air. Quarterback Aaron Murray was pressured from the get-go, leaving him visibly uncomfortable in the pocket. Murray was sacked just once in the first half, but heaved a pass into the arms of Auburn’s Ryan Smith at the Tigers’ 39-yard line. The turnover was costly, but tackle John Theus said the offensive struggles started long before the pick.

“We came out a little sluggish the first half,” Theus said. “I think they kind of caught us by surprise. They came out with a lot of energy and they were playing really hard.”

Georgia’s first few offensive series presented some changes to the offensive line’s rotation, including the substitution of junior offensive tackle Kolton Houston for Theus. Houston played a few series as a result of Theus’ costly mistakes early in the game.

“I realized it the first drive. I don’t know about everybody else,” Theus said. “I got beat off the edge and I realized they ain’t no joke. No. 30 (Dee Ford) was a great rusher and had a lot of speed. I realized then I had to pick it up and as the game went on I thought I did better and better.”

The change in the rotation did have its distinct advantages, sending a message to Theus and the rest of the offensive line. An increased effort by the blockers up front gave Murray an opportunity to get on the board with a 16-yard rushing touchdown early in the third quarter.

“At halftime coaches did a great job with adjustments, coming up with a plan and we went out and executed,” Theus said. “We knew the rushes and we got more comfortable with it and adjusted some things. It was a better second half obviously.”

Just a little later in the quarter, one of many deciding plays to come occurred with just over three minutes to play. Georgia’s offense, facing a fourth down with six yards to go, left the offensive line with the pressure of protecting Murray long enough to allow him to throw an accurate pass. While Murray had time to throw, there seemed to be miscommunication between the senior quarterback and his intended target Jonathon Rumph. Rumph said poor communication never played a part in the offense’s slow start.

“It’s just all about the execution,” Rumph said. “We had the right plays in the right situations; we just had execute them to our ability more. We came out with a chip on our shoulder (in the second half) and we really wanted to show them that we could beat them.”

More opportunities began to appear for Murray in the final quarter. The redshirt senior quarterback was finally able to get in a rhythm with sure-handed receiver Rantavious Wooten with 9:35 left to play. Wooten hauled in a 5-yard touchdown pass from Murray to cut the Auburn lead to 14. Marshall Morgan’s extra point made it a 37-24 game. That’s where Georgia’s monumental run changed the entire mindset.

“I think it was a mind thing,” Wooten said. “We just came out with the mindset that we wasn’t going to lose the game.”

The touchdown play was a sign of life for Georgia’s offense, providing a spark on the Bulldogs’ following offensive series. Murray completed a 22-yard screen pass to Gurley to set Georgia’s offense up on Auburn’s 34-yard line. Murray made quick work of Auburn’s defense in the series of plays that followed, highlighted by a 24-yard touchdown pass to Arthur Lynch to cut Auburn’s lead to seven. The drive took 1:16 off the game clock, leaving Georgia with a chance to pull closer with just under six minutes remaining.

All that momentum took its toll on Auburn’s defense as the clock moved below the two-minute mark. Facing a fourth-and-goal on Auburn’s 5-yard line, Georgia needed to convert to tie the game. Murray put the game in his hands when he couldn’t find an open receiver and picked up the necessary yardage for a Bulldog touchdown. The score tied the game and Morgan’s extra point gave Georgia the lead.

However, all the good plays for Georgia in Saturday’s game couldn’t outweigh the one bad. The Bulldog defense stepped up when it was needed most, but couldn’t capitalize after forcing Nick Marshall and his offense into a fourth-and-18 on its own 27-yard line. A deep ball from Marshall that wasn’t batted down landed in the hands of Ricardo Louis for a 73-yard Tiger touchdown. The score put Auburn up 43-38 with the help of an extra point.

“It sucks,” Wooten said. “You just kind of hold your breath and see what happens. When something like that happens it definitely hurts. It definitely sucks.”

With three seconds left in the game, Georgia was down to its last shot. The Bulldogs took the field on first-and-five following an offsides penalty on Auburn. That’s where the momentum stopped. Murray dropped back, found no one open, decided to make a play on the run and got hit hard on the throw by Ford. The incompletion left Georgia with the loss, but Georgia coach Mark Richt couldn’t help but see the positives his team displayed.

“There’s some things to be learned, and we certainly did some things that cost us throughout the game that we’ve got to do better,” Richt said. “A lot of really positive things happened today. Three scores is not impossible in one quarter, and sure enough we did that.”

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