What can be considered Kirby Smart’s first signature win as Georgia’s head coach came without his offense scoring a touchdown.
It didn’t need to with the way the Bulldogs defense Saturday stifled No . 8 Auburn to lock down a 13-7 victory in Sanford Stadium.
Alabama graduate transfer nickel back Maurice Smith’s 34-yard interception return 23 seconds into the third quarter gave Georgia a much-needed score to tie the game and the Bulldogs defense pitched three-and-outs on the next six straight Auburn possessions.
“Every victory is amazing but to knock off a top 10 team in your house, it just feels amazing,” said Georgia inside linebacker Roquan Smith, who had a team-high seven tackles.
Rodrigo Blankenship put the Bulldogs ahead on a 45-yard field goal with 13:44 to go and added another from 21 yards with 2:25 left.
“Our goal all along has been to make this team become what it’s capable of,” Smart said. “You want it to happen early of course, but what matters most is that it does happen. We’re starting to see some of that resiliency and push and getting better and improvement that we’ve talked about all year.”
Smith, it turned out, helped his former Alabama teammates clinch the SEC West because the Georgia loss coupled with a Crimson Tide win earlier in the day against Mississippi State eliminated Auburn in the division.
“It’s beautiful,” said Smith, who last had a pick six in high school.
Alabama players texted Smith to let him know they wanted him to help their cause.
“They were telling us they had confidence in us and felt like we were going to be the team to beat them,” Smith said. “That’s what we did.”
On a third-and-10, quarterback Sean White had time to throw, but Smith stepped in front of a pass intended for wide receiver Will Hastings on the left side and worked his way through some traffic to return it 34 yards for the touchdown.
Smith blew a kiss to the fans in the end zone for good measure.
An Auburn offense that averaged 494 yards per game was held to 164 yards total and no first downs in the second half. The Tigers were held nearly 28 points below their scoring average.
“We just didn’t have any explosive plays,” Gus Malzahn, whose team tied a low-mark for points in his time as Auburn head coach.
Visiting teams found Sanford Stadium about as intimidating as a poodle in September and October.
The Bulldogs set a different November tone Saturday again Auburn, which continues to have all kind of trouble with Georgia no matter where the game is played.
Georgia stunned the 10-point favorite Tigers for its ninth win in the last 11 games in the series. The Bulldogs last win against a top 10 opponent came against No. 9 Auburn, 34-7 in Athens in 2014.
The Bulldogs (6-4, 4-4 SEC) were 1-2 at home this year including falling to Vanderbilt and the lone win by two against Nicholls, but became bowl-eligible for the 20th straight year and gave Smart his first rivalry win after losses earlier this season to Tennessee and Florida.
Georgia won its fifth straight against Auburn (7-3, 5-2) between the hedges dating back to 2005.
The only wins Auburn has against the Bulldogs since then came in 2010 and 2013 — years the Tigers won the BCS national title and reached the championship game and it needed the Prayer in Jordan-Hare to win the last one.
Georgia ensured Auburn won’t be reaching such heights this year on a day the Tigers had a six-game winning streak snapped. Georgia freshman quarterback Jacob Eason threw for 208 yards on 20 of 31 passing. White, his Auburn counterpart, was 6 of 20 for 27 yards.
A bowl bonus kicks in for Smart worth $50,000 to $75,000 depending on where the Bulldogs go.
The game brought out a Super Bowl MVP (retired Steeler wide receiver Hines Ward), a World Series champion (Cubs pitcher Justin Grimm), a former heavyweight champion of the world (Evander Holfyield, father of University of Georgia running Elijah Holyfield) and a four-time Olympic gold medal swimmer (Allison Schmitt).
Georgia outgained Auburn 106-90 in the first quarter, but those yards went for naught when former Georgia safety Tray Matthews picked off a pass from wide receiver Terry Godwin after he took a snap, ran right and tried to get points in the air.
Auburn drove 80 yards in 15 plays, running it on 11 plays of the drive.
With SEC leading rusher Kamryn Pettway out with a leg injury, Kerryon Johnson (99 yards on 22 carries) took over as the workhorse running for 74 yards on 15 carries in the first half.
Smart said Georgia simplified things defensively at the half.
“They were hitting a lot of stuff on the perimeter,” Smith said. “We had to force it from the perimeter back inside.”
The only points of the first half came on a 3-yard touchdown run from the 6-foot, 211-pound Johnson on a direct snap out of the wildcat.
Georgia had the ball in Auburn territory in four of their five first-half possessions and came away with zilch.
It was the second time this season Georgia failed to score in the first half.
The previous time it was down 31-0 at Ole Miss on Sept. 24.
In the second half, Georgia survived a low snap from center Brandon Kublanow for a 13-yard loss, getting points off the right leg of Blankenship.
The redshirt freshman’s 45-yard field goal had just enough to clear the cross bar.
It turned out to be the winning points in a game where Auburn’s high-octane rushing attack was limited to just 127 yards on 32 carries.
“It does wonders for the program, the university, the recruiting,” said Smart, who was busy hosting recruits after the game. “When I’m done talking to y’all, I want to see those guys. It gives our kids something they can hang their hat on.”