Championship season key #2: Squib kick and its ugly cousins

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If Georgia's going to win a championship, Mark Richt needs to avoid those head-scratching decisions. (Sean Taylor / UGA)
If Georgia's going to win a championship, Mark Richt needs to avoid those head-scratching decisions. (Sean Taylor / UGA)

If Georgia’s going to win a championship, Mark Richt needs to avoid those head-scratching decisions. (Sean Taylor / UGA)

Last week, I began a look at four factors on which a championship season can hinge, making the difference between a very good team and a great one.

First on the list was the play of the quarterback. Even with a loaded backfield featuring the likes of Nick Chubb, at some point this coming season the Georgia QB (whoever that ends up being) will have to step up and win a game if the Dawgs are going to be champions.

The next of our championship-season keys is one that surely will resonate with Bulldog fandom: Mark Richt and his coordinators need to avoid making a bizarre or boneheaded call in a crucial moment that ends up leaving the bewildered Bulldog faithful scratching their heads.

Of course, what constitutes a boneheaded call can be open to debate.

Sometimes, coaches gamble with calls, and that gamble doesn’t work out. That’s life. For example, the decision not to spike the ball at the end of the SEC Championshp game against Alabama in 2012.

Down 32-28 with a first-and-goal from the 8-yard line with 15 seconds showing on the clock and no timeouts, Georgia was within striking distance of a shot at the national championship. Instead of spiking the ball and stopping the clock, Georgia hastily ran a back-shoulder fade to Malcolm Mitchell, which was tipped at the line by a Bama defender and caught in bounds by Chris Conley as the clock ran out.

The 2012 SEC Championship game didn't end well for the Dawgs. (Associated Press)

The 2012 SEC Championship game didn’t end well for the Dawgs. (Associated Press)

Many fans and analysts have argued that Richt and then-offensive coordinator Mike Bobo should have called for Aaron Murray to spike the ball and stop the clock, because Georgia burned 6 seconds before finally snapping the ball, which was a lost play. The coaches argued pretty convincingly that having Alabama out of position, back on its heels and unable to substitute was worth the lost seconds.

The Bama defense was in disarray, and going for an immediate play was a smart move. It just so happened that one of the Bama defenders, who was out of position, managed to get a hand on the ball. That play could be considered a reasonable gamble that just didn’t work.

But Richt’s decision to kick a squib kick to Georgia Tech after the Dawgs had taken the lead with 18 seconds remaining on the clock last season was an absolutely indefensible call. That allowed the Jackets to get the ball with good enough field position to tie the game up and send it into overtime, where they won.

Hutson Mason thought he'd led the Dawgs to victory. Then came the squib kick. (Sean Taylor / UGA)

Hutson Mason thought he’d led the Dawgs to victory. Then came the squib kick. (Sean Taylor / UGA)

As I wrote at the time, the squib kick, which probably will haunt Richt the rest of his career, ranks as one of the worst decisions I’ve seen a Georgia head coach make in five decades of attending games at Sanford Stadium. Even Richt called it “a poor decision on my part.”

It was the kind of call that indicated Richt didn’t have confidence in his kickoff coverage team. There’ve been other bad decisions in the past seemingly prompted by a case of the doubts, as when he chose to attempt a field goal against Central Florida in a bowl game rather than going for it and letting his young offense build some confidence.

And, last year against Florida, Richt electing not to go for it on fourth-and-short in the first quarter sent the wrong message.

Another controversial decision from last season, made by Bobo, was the infamous “first-and-dumb” play call against South Carolina. Bobo subsequently argued that having Hutson Mason roll out on a play-action pass that resulted in him getting called for intentional grounding was not a bad call, it was just poorly executed.

Many felt Todd Gurley didn't get the ball when he should have against the Gamecocks. (Associated Press)

Many felt Todd Gurley didn’t get the ball when he should have against the Gamecocks. (Associated Press)

I’ll give him partial credit on that one, but the fact remains that if you’ve got the best running back in the nation and he’s having success against the other guys, the smartest call is to give him the ball when you’re down close to the goal line. Even if everyone in the stadium expected Todd Gurley to get the ball, that was still Georgia’s best option. Richt candidly admitted after the game that Georgia should have run the ball.

More often, the UGA head coach has been hammered by fans for poor clock management, dating back to the Auburn game of his very first season at Georgia, when he called a running play from the Tigers’ 1-yard line, trailing 24-17 with 16 seconds to play and no timeouts. The Tigers stopped Jasper Sanks for no gain and there wasn’t enough time to get another play off, leaving Richt to admit he made a mistake in not taking a couple of passing shots at the end zone.

Unfortunately, after many more seasons, clock management continues to plague Richt, who has a tendency to not call timeouts when he should, or not call them quickly enough, and to call them when he shouldn’t, as in last year’s Tech game, when the Jackets looked likely to get a delay-of-game penalty on their key field goal attempt that tied the game as time expired, but were saved when Richt suddenly decided to stop the clock to “ice” the kicker.

Last season against Florida, some indecision on Richt’s part allowed the clock to run down before he finally called a timeout late in the first half. With the Gators facing fourth-and-2 at their own 45, the clock rolled down from 1:35 to 1:09 before Georgia called timeout. Down 14-7, Georgia just ran out the remaining time after finally getting the ball back.

As Richt noted after the game, “I did a bad job of deciding what to do. … If I was going to call a timeout, I should have called it sooner. As I’m processing the decision, the clock’s ticking. That was a poor job by me.”

And, returning to that fateful game against Bama in Atlanta in 2012, even before the point where you can argue he should or should not have had Murray spike the ball, Richt allowed a bunch of time to roll off the clock before calling a timeout, time that could have made the difference and allowed the Dawgs to score and wind up playing for the national championship.

As noted earlier, there are gambles that can pop the lid off a game and are worth taking, and then there are just clear strategic choices where you need to go with what you know works and not get too cute about it.

If Georgia is going to win another championship, Richt and his coaching staff have to know the difference.

Go Dawgs!

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— Bill King, Junkyard Blawg

Junkyard Blawg mugBill King is an Athens native and a graduate of the University of Georgia’s Henry W. Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication. A lifelong Bulldogs fan, he sold programs at Sanford Stadium as a teen and has been a football season ticket holder since leaving school. He has worked at the AJC since college and spent 10 years as the Constitution’s rock music critic before moving into copy editing on the old afternoon Journal. In addition to blogging, he’s now a story editor.


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