AUBURN, Ala. - Auburn (3-2, 0-2) fell to the top-ranked Georgia Bulldogs (5-0, 2-0) on Saturday afternoon inside Jordan-Hare Stadium.
In what many expected to be a lopsided game, the Tigers put up an admirable fight. The Tigers led 10-0 at the end of the first quarter and 17-10 in the third before Georgia took its first lead early in the fourth. Auburn would tie it up with an Alex McPherson field goal, but Georgia ultimately pulled away to win 27-20.
The difference in the game may have been third down. The Tigers offense went 2-12 on third down, while the Bulldogs were 8-13.
"Like I said, I think that's where the game was won and lost—our third down defense and our third down offense," Auburn head coach Hugh Freeze said.
On third down alone in the second half, Georgia amassed 87 yards. Auburn, on the other hand, only had 28 yards.
The biggest issue, especially on the third down for the Tigers, was the star tight end for the Bulldogs, Brock Bowers. Bowers finished the game with eight receptions for 156 yards and a touchdown. The junior had 44 yards receiving on third down alone.
"Nineteen is a handful," Freeze said. "We didn't do a great job guarding him."
As much as Bower's was an issue on third down, he wasn't the only problem. Auburn's defense was unable to put pressure on Georgia quarterback Carson Beck, even on third and long. Beck completed five third and seven plus plays.
"You know, it was hard to get pressure on Carson Beck with just four," Freeze said. "We obviously, probably, could have done some different coverages."
Why wasn't the Auburn defense able to disrupt Beck more?
"He would just get the ball out quick, Auburn Jack linebacker Jalen McLeod said. "It's nothing we could do about that."
Auburn's defense had success slowing Georgia's run game down, holding the Bulldogs to just over 100 yards rushing, but could not get off the field in the second half. Auburn's offense was the opposite of Georgia's on third down. Late in the second half, Auburn had a chance to go up a touchdown on the Bulldogs but could not convert a crucial third and short.
The theme would continue in the second half, whether it was incomplete passes or minimal run gains. The Tigers just could not move the chains when it mattered most.
"You know we've got to make a few more throws and catches," Freeze said of the offense's performance.
Overall, the offense rushed for 219 yards on a stout Georgia defense, but in a tight game, a third-down success rate can be the difference, and Auburn's offense was unable to find success. Overall, the Tigers played a hard-fought game against the top team in the country, but one can only wonder what might have happened if the third-down trends had been reversed.
"It'll be a restless night for me, I'm sure," Freeze said.
Auburn will head into its bye week now before making a trip to Baton Rouge in two weeks. The Tigers will look to make adjustments, especially their third-down success rate, and get healthy over the next two weeks before they take on the Bayou Bengals.
There is still a lot of time left for Hugh Freeze and his Tigers. They are looking forward to the challenge ahead.
"We'll take the positives from the game when we watch the film, go through Monday, and get healthy," Freeze said. "And then get ready for some more difficult SEC games."