It’s rare that life hands you a second chance at redemption. You have come up short in a big moment, and then, under eerily similar circumstances, you have the opportunity to redeem yourself and seize the moment. From goat to hero, the story is rewritten.
No, we’re not talking about Jalen Hurts.
We’re talking about Georgia’s fake punt in the 2018 SEC Championship game...one that was set up by Georgia’s fake punt from the 2012 SEC Championship game.
That 2012 SECCG Alabama victory was memorable for many things: Amari Cooper; AJ McCarron; T.J. Yeldon and Eddie Lacy; the Completion-that-Should-Not-Have-Been from Aaron Murray, Quinton Dial’s hit that did more to move the needle of targeting than any other play in recent memory.
With all of the huge late plays, it’s easy to forget how we even got there.
That game, the de facto 2012 National Championship, was not the shootout that we recall from the second half. In fact, after fifteen scoreless minutes of play, Richt and Saban looked to be settling in for a good ole’ fashioned SEC slobberknocker — it was 0-0 heading into the second frame. And, at half, the score was as you’d imagine for the No. 2 and No. 3 teams in the nation, both sporting Top 10 defenses: 10-7, Tide.
The second half showed why both teams had Top 15 offenses too: Punch-counterpunch, deep strikes, power runs, big returns, pitch-perfect quarterbacking. It was a delightful game: You couldn’t even be mad if the Tide lost. And, had Aaron Murray’s pass not been tipped at the line, fluttering into the arms of a surprised Chris Conley and killing the clock, then a lot of legacies would have been rewritten that day: Murray is enshrined as an all-time SEC great. Mark Richt sheds that choking label as he dethrones Alabama and smashes Notre Dame for a national title. Richt probably isn’t even fired three years later, to be honest.
But, there it is on the record books: 32-28 Alabama.
Now that we’ve sufficiently Gumped, let’s take a look at a play that is lost from that wild fourth quarter, one that cemented some early momentum for Georgia — and one that would resurface in 2018 to steal the momentum from those same ‘Dawgs.
The score was 0-0 Georgia early in the second quarter, with both teams looking for an early strike to grab the momentum. The Bulldogs were largely in control. They had limited to the Tide to 12 harmless plays and a measly 64 yards on Alabama’s first three drives. Conversely, UGA had just put together a nice 77-yard, 7-play drive that ended with a missed field goal.
After forcing a four-and-out for Alabama, Georgia again drove the field in 10 plays, before the Tide seemingly got a stop near their own 40-yard line.
Not trusting Mark Richt (and Alabama having already execute its own fake punt later called back for a penalty), Kirby Smart sent the regular defense out on the field in a punt safe formation. Georgia, meanwhile, lined up in a spread punt formation.
Despite Alabama being set up to prevent a fake, Georgia nonetheless ran one — the snap went to tight end/up-man Arthur Lynch, who calmly threw a nice pass over the outstretched arms of Xzavier Dickson to Georgia cornerback Sanders Commings.
Mark Richt, who was criticized frequently during his Georgia tenure for ghastly special teams, was coordinating the Bulldogs units at the time. Though the hands-on coaching was split between his staff, Richt must have seen something on film about Alabama’s safe defense. Because the play he dialed up was perfect.
And perfect, it was.
First the UGA linemen are in wide splits, forcing one of Saban’s less-athletic defensive lines to play wide-two gap responsibility. In turn, that resulted in Trey Depriest, a throwback run-stuffing MLB, to cover a much larger zone than he would otherwise be responsible for. Already not the most gifted pass defender, Depriest would see the snap to Lynch, and 88’s stutter-step tuck, and bite on the play-fake. That stutter-step froze Dickson on the weakside, and he was in no-man’s land; too committed to the line of scrimmage to drop back in coverage and too hesitant to disrupt the pass. With the gunners being left to defend slants on the outside, and already giving up inside leverage, the pass went over Depriest’s head, into his zone of responsibility, and was an easy pitch-and-catch on Commings’ stab/curl.
Good for 16 yards, the pass gave a Georgia team already sporting the momentum a fresh set of downs: From 4th and 10 at the ‘Bama 37, to 1st and 10 at the Alabama 20. Two plays later, the Bulldogs would capitalize on an Alabama defense now on its heels and make it 7-0.
3rd and Kirby had struck. Smart’s defense had been burned on a play they were looking for, that they were expecting, and that they had the personnel on the field to prevent.
Ed. Note: Seriously, people that think Mark Richt isn’t a good coach are the bane of my existence. That was a brilliant play call, drawn up after incalculable hours of film study, and one designed to target the Tide’s personnel weaknesses as much as it attacked the scheme.
Fast-forward six years later to the 2018 SEC Championship, with three minutes remaining in a 28-28 tie ballgame. The momentum had swung to the Tide’s favor, on some frankly improbable throws and runs by Jalen Hurts. But Georgia had just moved the ball to midfield. Both teams had multiple timeouts, and the game looked to be settling down for a tense finish.
Still, facing 4th and 11, with the ball at the midfield stripe, Kirby Smart trotted out uber-athlete Justin Fields on the punt team. Alabama did not even remotely play the punt, and was in its safe four-down, read-and-react.
The result was...suboptimal.
There is a lot going on here that mirrors Georgia’s 2012 fake punt:
- First, is the formation. In 2012, Georgia was in the same punt deuce look — wide splits, strongside twin WR to the far hash, with the up-man on the boundary side of the formation.
- On both plays, the end/tight-end takes one stutter-step, as though blocking, to slow down the pass rush. Then the end fires off the line before running a little stab/curl-stop into the zone.
- On both plays, the outsides are running slants; though in 2018, the slot man is running more of a little dig-slant than a straight slant. 2012 was a straight slant, to facilitate a quicker thrown.
- On both plays, the up-man makes a play-fake. In Fields’ case, he has bit of a moving pocket to account for an RPO ability that Lynch lacked.
- And, in both cases, the play was a two-man route: to the end running the stab/curl-stop, or to the wideout coming inside on the slant (2012) and dig-slant (2012).
The results could not have been more different, however.
First, Alabama had done its film study on this very play. The rush is a lot more organized and disciplined than in 2012. The four-down aren’t frozen, and they move the pocket while containing the outside and funneling any runs to the inside, where Mack Wilson was waiting. That pass rush, and the collapsing pocket, gave a green freshman fresh off the bench almost no time to react and find a throwing lane or an open route. Fields understandably panicked instead, tucking and running straight into the middle of the line of scrimmage.
Second, unlike 2012, where Trey Depriest got gobbled up quickly and then was toasty, Mack Wilson plays this about as well as possible under the circumstance. He does bite on Fields’ initial move, but within the span of a second he does something Depriest did not do: he called out the play, and the primary target, to his defense. That communication ensured that the end would not be running unabated through the second level. That communication was also not given by Depriest to Dickson in 2012.
The rest...the rest is history.
So, was it a dumb call? I’d argue given all of the underlying facts, and the game situation, it was perhaps the dumbest one you’ve seen this side of Pete Carroll forgetting he has Marshawn Lynch (and that even includes Alabama’s fake in the CFP Championship game.)
- Fields was ice cold. He had seen almost no playing time against a competitive defense on the season, and had thrown no passes against one as athletic as Alabama. He had thrown 38 passes all season — and 24 of those were against UMass, Austin Peay, and Middle Tennessee. His first pass attempt of the game was this one? Against one of the nation’s most dominating players, it resulted in Fields having less than three seconds, from snap to tackle, to run this play.
- Kirby knew how athletic the Alabama defensive front was. Yet, this two-man route had a very short curl, and a secondary read that included a double-move. Had the curl been covered — and there were defenders around the ball — then that second read is to the dig-slant. That is simply asking too much of the punt unit. And, to ask a freshman QB to hold the and wait for a double-move to open against the likes of Raekwon Davis and Quinnen Williams? C’mon, man.
- While there is an argument that Kirby was attempting to steal the momentum, the risk of calamity was simply too great. We’re well aware of what happens when a defense gets on its heels: almost nothing can recapture that mojo. And, when they’re forced back on the field after offensive ineptitude or a hideous coaching move, bad things usually happen to a demoralized group.
- The fact that so many of Alabama’s long conversions were improbable was absolutely the main reason to punt it away. You’re asking Jalen Hurts to take the game into his hands, drive at least 80 yards, and win it with his throwing ability. In his career, he had done so just once, and that was a full calendar year earlier against Mississippi State. By contrast, there were instances where Alabama had come up short or he simply could not make the big completion — Auburn, LSU, Clemson. Granted, Hurts is a cool customer, but at least make the odds longer.
Whether you think it was the right call or not, everything about this playcall screamed arrogance. Running the very same play, in the very same city, against the very same team, for the very same stakes, in the same tie ballgame? It’s as though Kirby thought “this worked against me, so it should work against him;” as though Nick Saban didn’t do his homework or hadn’t spent 6 years agonizing over allowing that conversion; the unfounded belief that he could the same thing against a different sort of athlete; that an ice-cold freshman quarterback that was his guy would win over the athleticism of Q, the passing diagnosis of Mack Wilson, or the maniacal preparation of Nick Saban.
It’s not that Kirby is a bad head coach — the jury is still out on that — but his focus in that remarkably bone-headed moment seemed to be on upstaging his mentor; on driving a stake through the heart of the old man who had tormented him 11 months earlier; on escaping the shadows.
Sometimes, even a 44-year old man can be instantly relegated to teenage rebellion as he chafes at the legacy of his father-figure. That seemed to happened here.
But, in the end, there was no triumphal crowning of Kirby Smart as the new Nick Saban. In that fitting bit of play-calling déjà vu, the shadow Nick Saban cast over Athens, and Kirby Smart’s career, only grew longer.