But a mountain of missed opportunities on both sides of the ball contributed to the loss. Offensively, the Tigers were unable to secure the game with a first down late after the defense stopped Georgia on downs with less than three minutes remaining in the contest. Defensively, the Tigers allowed the Bulldogs to drive the length of the field for a touchdown late in the third quarter that turned the momentum of the game towards the visitors.
Senior cornerback and Columbus native Roderick Hood said this game was about more than just the late Georgia touchdown.
"I can't even describe the feelings," Hood said. "We knew we had to make some plays down there because they were going to give it their all. We never should have been in that position. Us as a defense put ourselves in that position. It wasn't one play to win the ball game; there were a lot of them. It's unfortunate that they scored at the end. We played our hearts out. We just have to come back next week and try to make things better."
Roderick Hood returns a punt against the Bulldogs. He finished the night with 176 yards in returns on both punts and kickoffs, including a 19-yard punt return that set up Auburn's final touchdown of the night.
After dominating the first half and leading by a score of 14-3 at intermission, the tables turned in the second half thanks to the hot hand of Georgia quarterback David Greene and Johnson. Just 4-for-11 for 29 yards the first 30 minutes, Greene came back to take over the last half of play despite a howling wind blowing through the stadium. Finishing the game with 232 yards on 18-of-31 throws with one big touchdown, the sophomore displayed the character and toughness the Auburn coaches expected out of him.
"You can't hold him down all day," defensive coordinator Gene Chizik said of Greene. "He's a good football player. He made some passes and he made some plays. You just try to stop him at the right time and obviously today we didn't stop him at the right time."
Much of the reason for Auburn's success in the first half was getting pressure on Greene from the front four and linebackers. Chizik also mixed in the occasional safety blitz to confuse Greene and make him get rid of the ball before he wanted to. Defensive tackle Tommy (T.J.) Jackson said that was the plan coming in and it worked for much of the game as Auburn totaled four sacks for 30 yards.
"We just wanted to get back there and try to keep him from making big plays," Jackson said. "He's a great quarterback so if you try to keep someone on him maybe he won't make big plays. Coach told us to get back there and try to make things happen."
Jackson (58) and Bret Eddins (94) were part of a defensive line that played one of their better games Saturday night.
Clinging to a narrow four-point advantage late in the game, the Tigers came up with five stops against Greene and company in the fourth quarter to keep the lead intact, including two turnovers. It wasn't until the final Georgia drive of the game that mistakes finally came back to haunt the Tigers. On the second play of the drive, Greene hit receiver Fred Gibson for a big 41-yard pass that took the ball all the way down to the Auburn 14-yard line with under two minutes left in the game.
That set up the final straw that broke the camel's back for the Tigers as they held the Bulldogs for three downs, including a dramatic broken up pass by Hood on third down in the end zone. With a fourth down and 15 from the Auburn 19-yard line, Greene dropped back to pass. Lifting a lob into the left corner of the end zone, Greene found Johnson over the outstretched arms of Willis for the game-winner for Georgia.
"We bluffed the blitz we had run a couple of plays earlier and came out of it and played zone coverage," Chizik said of the Johnson touchdown. "We had a corner there in position to go up and compete for the ball--he just didn't come down with it. Great players make great plays in games like this and he didn't come down with the ball."
Still center Ben Nowland said this game should have never come down to making a late defensive stop. Getting the ball on downs with 2:33 left in regulation and Georgia with two timeouts, one first down would have sealed an Auburn win. Playing without fullback Brandon Johnson, who sat out most of the second half with a sprained ankle, the Tigers could manage but eight yards on three plays. Using just 35 seconds off the game clock, Nowland said that was the thing that hurt the most from this game.
"I'm heartbroken really," Nowland said. "We had that one if we had just made a first down or made something happen at some point in time in the fourth quarter. It's hard."
While both sides claim responsibility for Saturday's loss, in the end it came down to a total team effort. From offense to defense to special teams, Auburn just didn't make the plays when they had to and the result was one of the most disappointing Tiger losses in some time.
"The team played well enough to win," Jackson said. "The offense played good, the defense played good, sometimes things just don't happen that way. I'm proud of the whole team period. The offense did a great job and so did the defense. Sometimes things just happen.
"This is a team game. You have to play the situations. I'm proud of the offense. The offense played great. We just have to go back to work. You can't let a loss take you down like that. We still have a season to play."