AUBURN, Ala. (AP) — Kerryon Johnson and the Auburn Tigers delivered an emphatic statement to the rest of the Southeastern Conference: Don’t forget us.
The 10th-ranked Tigers emerged from the shadows of the nation’s top two teams, riding Johnson and a smothering defense to a 40-17 victory over No. 2 Georgia on Saturday.
With Johnson running for 167 yards and catching a 55-yard touchdown pass from Jarrett Stidham, Auburn (8-2, 6-1 Southeastern Conference) remained in Western Division and potentially playoff contention after snapping a three-year losing streak to one of its top rivals. The Bulldogs (9-1, 6-1) came in with the top spot in the playoff rankings and could get a rematch if Auburn can beat No. 1 Alabama in two weeks.
The first go around wasn’t pretty for Georgia. The Tigers held Nick Chubb, Sony Michel and the SEC’s top ground game to 46 yards, 233 below their season average.
As Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said, “They seized the moment.”
“We have a great opportunity right now, and our goal was to win the SEC championship,” Malzahn said. “Here we are, Nov. 11, and we’re right in the middle of it. And all the dreams we have are still alive.”
Johnson ran 32 times and caught two passes for 66 yards. Stidham threw for 214 yards and three touchdowns, all of 30-plus yards. He also ran for a 7-yard score.
“We knew we had a great team, but we had to go out and prove it,” Johnson said. “We did that today and that’s something we can hang our hat on.”
Georgia special teams blunders helped set up three Auburn touchdowns, including a roughing the penalty flag in the first half. The Bulldogs fumbled away a punt return and had a 15-yard personal foul penalty in the third quarter when Auburn pulled away with two touchdowns.
“What made it so lopsided was the uncharacteristic penalties,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said.
Ryan Davis returned a punt 26 yards into Georgia territory, with the flag pushing Auburn even closer to the goal line. Then Davis took a screen pass 32 yards for a touchdown to make it 30-7. Darius Slayton made a 42-yard scoring grab earlier, rolling into the end zone.
The Bulldogs added a touchdown in the final minutes. Chubb gained just 27 yards on 11 carries with a 1-yard touchdown on the opening drive. Michel ran nine times for 21 yards.
Jake Fromm was 13-of-28 passing for 184 yards and a late touchdown pass. Smart said Auburn “whipped” the Bulldogs at the lines of scrimmage.
“Humility is always a week away, and I think this team will answer and respond the right way,” he said. “We’ve got some good leaders in that room, and they want to improve on what they just showed.”
Georgia: Made too many mistakes in the season’s biggest game. Fromm faced heavy pressure and was sacked four times. Was trying to move to 10-0 for the first time since 1982 and fourth overall.
Auburn: Had its best all-around performance of the year, making big plays on special teams, offense and defense. Outgained Georgia 488-230 in total yards. Set up a huge Iron Bowl showdown in two weeks, barring a stunning loss in between. Johnson said it was the offensive line’s best performance, Malzahn had the same assessment of the defensive front.
Malzahn thinks Johnson should be in the Heisman Trophy mix. “He’s one of the best running backs in the country if not the best,” the coach said. “He proved it tonight. He needs to be in the Heisman talk.
It was a frustrating night for Chubb but he did pass Bo Jackson, Auburn’s 1985 Heisman Trophy winner, and move into fourth on the SEC’s all-time rushing chart with 4,318 yards.
Georgia hosts Kentucky Saturday in its final SEC game.
Auburn plays Louisiana-Monroe in what should probably be little more than an Iron Bowl tuneup.