Battle's 3 INTs deal crushing blow to Auburn's BCS title hopes
AUBURN, Ala. (AP) -- The Georgia Bulldogs did more than just spoil No. 5 Auburn's title hopes. They finally played like defending Southeastern Conference champions.
With Tra Battle returning one of his three first-half interceptions for a touchdown and freshman quarterback Matthew Stafford's poised passing and running, the Bulldogs salvaged a disappointing season with an emphatic 37-15 victory over the Tigers on Saturday.
And those embarrassing losses to Vanderbilt and Kentucky? What losses?
"I'm definitely not thinking about Vandy and Kentucky," Georgia defensive tackle Ray Gant said. "That was easily erased from my memory with this win.
"This is the sweetest victory I've ever had."
Georgia (7-4, 4-4 Southeastern Conference) all but erased Auburn's hopes of even winning an SEC championship much less a national title.
The Tigers (9-2, 5-2) entered the game as nearly two-touchdown favorites and were among a handful of one-loss teams trying to play into a Bowl Championship Series title shot. Ranked sixth in the latest BCS standings, Auburn was unable to put up much of a fight in this one.
"They came here with a mission and got it done at the expense of us," Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville said. "Today was one of those days where there wasn't anything going our way."
The result was the implosion of an Auburn team that struggled against other underdogs such as Mississippi and South Carolina and was dominated by then-unranked Arkansas.
The Bulldogs, who had lost four of their last five games, jumped out to a stunning 30-7 halftime lead against the nation's No. 4 scoring defense and avoided a losing SEC record. They sacked Brandon Cox four times and Battle swiped three of Cox's eight first-half passes.
No team had scored that many points against Auburn since a 38-17 loss to Arkansas in 2002.
"They just beat us. They had an answer for everything we did," said Cox, who was intercepted four times and went 4-of-12 for 35 yards. "It seemed like everything we did didn't work."
The opposite was largely true for Stafford, who completed 14 of 20 passes for 219 yards, ran seven times for 83 yards and accounted for two touchdowns. He had been intercepted eight times in his last three games, but none on this day.
"It's definitely a big one for me and for the team," Stafford said. "We gave ourselves a chance even though a lot of people didn't. We just did a great job, a total team effort of pulling one out."
Georgia outgained the Tigers 446-171 and held onto the ball for 38 minutes.
And to think Georgia coach Mark Richt was questioning his offensive plan on the eve of the game.
"I was probably about as low as I have been all season," Richt said. "I thought that it was the worst thing I had ever seen. I was looking at how I could get Matthew some confidence and I thought this [game plan] was awful."
It was hardly awful. Besides Stafford's play -- including passes of 40 and 53 yards to set up first-half TDs -- Kregg Lumpkin rushed for a career-high 105 yards and had a touchdown run and catch for the Bulldogs.
Stafford took a draw play untouched for a 9-yard touchdown on third-and-goal early in the fourth quarter to make it 37-15.
That ended Auburn's short-lived rally attempt.
Courtney Taylor had run 31 yards on an end around and Cox hit Rod Smith for a 34-yard touchdown pass. The Tigers converted a 2-point pass with 4:27 left in the third quarter.
Cox banged up a tender right knee on a sack on the Tigers' first offensive play, laying on his back and briefly grabbing his leg. He said it didn't affect his throwing.
Battle was the big beneficiary of Cox's mistakes. He returned his second pick 30 yards for a touchdown with 4:56 left in the opening half and posted the first three-interception game by a Georgia player since 1982.
Battle thought he might have a chance for an interception, but called three "unimaginable."
He said the Bulldogs still weren't feeling comfortable at the half.
"We got out on Tennessee earlier this season (24-14) at the half," Battle said, referring to a 51-33 loss. "We knew we couldn't let up at all. Halftime for us has been a killer this season."
Not this time.
Auburn's Kenny Irons was held to 49 yards on 10 rushes. Brad Lester gained 40 yards on four carries, including a 21-yard touchdown run in the first half.
Taylor was Auburn's top rusher with 51 yards on two end arounds.
"It isn't good when your wide receiver is your leading rusher," Lester said.
2022 Southeastern Conference Standings