Tigers join ti­tle hunt with rout of top-ranked Bull­dogs

The Washington Post Sunday - - COLLEGE FOOTBALL - BY GENE WANG gene.wang@wash­post.com

auburn, ala. — Auburn en­tered the Col­lege Foot­ball Play­off con­ver­sa­tion in re­sound­ing fash­ion Satur­day af­ter­noon, thump­ing top-ranked and pre­vi­ously un­beaten Ge­or­gia, 40-17, be­hind a for­mi­da­ble rush­ing attack and amid myr­iad Bull­dogs er­rors.

No two-loss team has made the four-team play­off since its de­but in the 2014-15 sea­son. But the No. 10 Tigers’ romp sets up a show­down here in two weeks with archri­val Alabama — which en­tered the week­end un­de­feated and next in line to suc­ceed Ge­or­gia atop the play­off rank­ings — for a spot in the South­east­ern Con­fer­ence cham­pi­onship game. Win that, and a high-stakes re­match with the Bull­dogs would await.

“This is why you play col­lege foot­ball, in my opin­ion,” said Auburn sopho­more quar­ter­back Jar­rett Stid­ham, who ac­counted for four touch­downs. “It’s just so much fun. I mean, I re­ally can’t put it into words be­cause you grow up watch­ing games like this, and when you get an op­por­tu­nity to play in a game like this, and es­pe­cially win like this, it’s truly a bless­ing.”

Run­ning back Ker­ryon John­son led the way with 233 yards from scrim­mage, in­clud­ing 167 rush­ing on 32 car­ries, against the No. 5 run de­fense in ma­jor col­lege foot­ball. The ju­nior’s 55-yard touch­down catch with 6:13 to play in the fourth quar­ter pro­vided Auburn (8-2, 6-1 SEC) with its fi­nal points in front of an an­nounced 87,451 at Jor­dan-Hare Sta­dium.

The Tigers gained 488 yards of to­tal of­fense in all.

The Bull­dogs (9-1, 6-1), mean­while, have se­cured the SEC East ti­tle but are cer­tain to drop in the next play­off rank­ings, set to be re­leased Tues­day night. Still, Ge­or­gia re­mains in the mix for a berth in the na­tional semi­fi­nals with a pos­si­ble shot at claim­ing the SEC cham­pi­onship.

The out­come came into fo­cus over the first seven min­utes of the third quar­ter, dur­ing which time Auburn grew its lead to 30-7. Stid­ham’s 23-yard toss to wide re­ceiver Ryan Davis pro­duced that mar­gin two plays af­ter a Davis 26-yard punt re­turn that in­cluded a per­sonal foul against Ge­or­gia’s Sony Michel.

On the scor­ing pass, Davis caught the ball steps beyond the line of scrim­mage and wove through con­ges­tion in the mid­dle of field to the end zone for his fifth touch­down this sea­son.

The Tigers had opened a 23-7 ad­van­tage shortly af­ter the ball went through Ge­or­gia re­turn spe­cial­ist Mecole Hard­man’s arms and bounced off his lower body while he tried to field a punt. Auburn’s Darrell Wil­liams fell on the loose ball at the Bull­dogs’ 23-yard line, lead­ing to Stid­ham’s seven-yard run on read-op­tion keeper to the front right cor­ner of the end zone.

“It felt re­ally good tonight,” said Auburn Coach Gus Malzahn, whose team was play­ing a home game for the first time in more than a month. “It felt like it’s com­ing to­gether. Our crowd was un­be­liev­able, and our guys gave them some­thing to cheer about. It was a good win.”

A mis­cue on the part of the Ge­or­gia spe­cial teams al­lowed the Tigers to ex­tend a drive that yielded Stid­ham’s 42-yard touch­down pass to wide re­ceiver Dar­ius Slay­ton for a 16-7 lead with 4:09 left in the first half.

The touch­down came two plays af­ter of­fi­cials as­sessed a rough­ing penalty on the Bull­dogs’ D’An­dre Walker, who leapt over the line of scrim­mage and fell into punter Ai­dan Mar­shall. The 15-yard penalty and au­to­matic first down set up Auburn at its 46 and earned Walker a stern talk­ing-to on the side­line from mem­bers of the Bull­dogs’ coach­ing staff.

Ad­di­tional mis­takes ham­pered Ge­or­gia, which man­aged just 46 rush­ing yards, in the fi­nal min­utes of the sec­ond quar­ter. On third and eight, for in­stance, Hard­man came open by him­self near the Auburn 20-yard line, but the Bull­dogs’ of­fen­sive line could not hold up, and quar­ter­back Jake Fromm ab­sorbed a sack for a loss of seven.

Then on the fi­nal snap of the first half, Ge­or­gia place kicker Ro­drigo Blanken­ship pulled a 42yard field goal at­tempt as time ex­pired. The red­shirt sopho­more missed for just the sec­ond time in 13 tries this sea­son.

Trail­ing for the ma­jor­ity of the first quar­ter, Auburn claimed the lead for good on Daniel Carlson’s 30-yard field goal. The se­nior place kicker had a busy first half, mak­ing three field goals, the last of which came with 12:03 to go in the sec­ond quar­ter af­ter the Tigers stalled at the 13.

With the deci­bel level at a fever pitch as Ge­or­gia be­gan with the game’s open­ing pos­ses­sion, the Bull­dogs marched 70 yards on eight plays capped by Nick Chubb’s one-yard run for a 7-0 lead. Chubb took the snap out of a wild­cat for­ma­tion to score his 10th touch­down of the sea­son dur­ing a se­ries in which Ge­or­gia had con­sec­u­tive plays cov­er­ing 28 and 26 yards.

The lead shrunk to 7-3 on the next pos­ses­sion when Carlson con­nected on a 54-yard field goal with plenty of dis­tance to spare. Auburn had reached the Bull­dogs’ 37 but set­tled for Carlson’s kick match­ing his sea­son long fol­low­ing an in­com­ple­tion and run for no gain.

Carlson made his 17th field goal of the sea­son to draw the Tigers to 7-6 with 1:20 re­main­ing in the first quar­ter. Auburn had marched to the Bull­dogs’ 15 in eight plays, but a false started set up third and 15, and Stid­ham threw an in­com­plete pass amid heavy pres­sure.

“I think it was a huge state­ment,” said Slay­ton, orig­i­nally a Ge­or­gia com­mit be­fore chang­ing his de­ci­sion to Auburn. “Ob­vi­ously they’re the num­ber one team in the coun­try, and they’re a re­ally good team, so it was good for us to come out here and get this win.”

KEVIN C. COX/GETTY IM­AGES

Auburn run­ning back Ker­ryon John­son scored on a 55-yard re­cep­tion and rushed for 167 yards in Satur­day’s vic­tory against Ge­or­gia.

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