The 10th-ranked Bulldogs were fortunate to escape with a 17-13 SEC football victory in the SEC's oldest rivalry game.
"We had great effort," said Auburn junior Gabe McKenzie, who made the move back to tight end from defensive end for Saturday's game, a position he will stay at the rest of the year. "We were so close. So, so close. This one really hurts."
The Tigers had a chance to win the game until the final second. Moving from their own 20 with 1:44 left and no timeouts remaining, the Tigers moved 60 yards on 12 plays before being stopped on fourth and one at the Georgia 14 when a wheel route pass to Ben Tate was incomplete in the end zone off of the junior's hands.
Auburn head coach Tommy Tuberville said he liked his team's effort. He pointed to four trips into the red zone for his team coming up empty as being the difference in the game.
"That can't happen in a game like that," he said. "We knew it would come down to the wire."
An equal culprit in the defeat was certainly the kicking game. The Tigers muffed a PAT attempt early in the game that prevented them from being able to kick a field goal at the end of the game to set up overtime. Wes Byrum missed badly on a 42-yard field goal late in the first half that if he made it would have given the Tigers a chance to kick a late field goal to win.
"The kicking game hasn't been with us all year long," Tuberville said. "Some parts have and some haven't. We made the change at halftime and put another kicker in with Morgan Hull and he kicked the extra point. We haven't been able to take our opportunities when they are there. That has been a big difference in three or four ball games. Hopefully, it will turn around for us in the next game."
Auburn took the lead at 13-10 with 11:24 to play after Georgia had kicked a field goal to move ahead 10-6. Mario Fannin capped a 90-yard drive with a 35-yard run at left guard on a third and inches play. He weaved through the Georgia defense on his way to the end zone.
Mario Fannin scampers for the touchdown.
However, Hull's kickoff sailed out of bounds and Georgia got great field position at the 40. It took the Bulldogs just six plays to move for the score on a 17-yard pass from Matt Stafford to freshman star A.J. Green with 8:24 left.
The Tigers got two more scoring opportunities to pull out the victory.
The first started from their own 40 after the Bulldogs kicked off out of bounds on a very windy day that affected the passing and kicking.
Auburn moved to a first down at the Georgia 28, but three runs by Ben Tate left the Tigers with a fourth and three. Tuberville sent in the field goal team, but with 4:13 called timeout and changed his mind.
Georgia managed a first down and punted the ball back to the Tigers to set the stage for a final do-or-die possession that ended at the 14.
After a slow start the Auburn defense rallied to hold the Bulldogs to 351 yards after allowing 158 in the first quarter.
Auburn defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads said the Bulldogs came out with plays and formations the Tigers hadn't prepared for, but after making adjustments the coach said the Tigers looked more like they did early in the season before being hit hard by injuries. He noted the Tigers were probably as healthy on defense as they had been since the Mississippi State game.
Rhoads said he was particularly pleased with how the Auburn cornerbacks, Walt McFadden and Jerraud Powers, performed vs. the talented UGA receivers.
Still, UGA tailback Knowshon Moreno finished with 131 yards on 22 carries and caught four passes for 58 yards, including a touchdown. Matthew Stafford hit 15-24 passes for 215 yards and two scores and was not intercepted.
Burns completed 16-30 passes for 179 yards and one score for the Tigers. Fannin led Auburn in rushing with 59 yards on eight carries.
"I am proud of the effort," Tuberville said. "Our guys couldn't have laid it on the line any more for our seniors. This is their last game here. We have got one game left. They will get the same effort, but we have got to go on the road and do it against another good football team."
The opening minutes didn't look promising for the home team as Georgia's offense quickly moved into scoring range with big runs by Moreno and the passing of Stafford. However, the Tigers escaped without any damage on the scoreboard when Walter McFadden defended a third and two pass at the Auburn three. On the next play, Blair Wash's field goal attempt was blocked by Tez Doolittle and returned to the 22 by McFadden.
The Tigers moved the ball to the 38 before punting on fourth at five. Clinton Durst had a good roll, forcing the Bulldogs to start at their six.
Georgia again moved the ball, but an offensive pass interference call forced a punt. Robert Dunn's ill-advised effort to reverse field on the punt return lost eight yards and put the Tigers back at their six.
On the next play, Burns found Fannin open on a medium range pass. The sophomore tailback cut across the field and raced into the end zone to put the Tigers on top 6-0. The PAT failed as Clayton Crofoot couldn't handle the snap.
The Tigers missed a great chance to go up by two scores in the second quarter. The Tigers appeared to have a first and goal at the UGA five after a run by Fannin, but the play was called back by a holding. On third down, Burns fumbled as he was trying to pass and Georgia recovered to end the threat.
The Auburn defense held, but later in the half the Bulldogs got good field position at the 50 after a 35-yard punt by Durst. It took the Bulldogs just three plays to score with the TD coming on a screen pass to Moreno that covered 35 yards making it 7-6 UGA with 3:08 left before halftime.
Auburn had a chance to regain the lead before intermission. A late hit penalty on the kickoff return by Tristan Davis gave the Tigers possession at their own 40. Auburn. Facing fourth and four with 29 seconds left, Byrum was sent in to kick a field goal and his 42-yard try was well wide right. That play came back to haunt the Tigers, who fell to 5-6 with the loss while Georgia improved to 9-2.
At intermission the Tigers had 134 total yards on 29 plays while Georgia had 203 on 27 plays. Auburn finished with 3-3 yards to 351 for the Bulldogs.
The Tigers are off next week and will close the season with a road game at Alabama a week from Saturday.