Fifteen seconds left, eight yards from victory. We know how the epic SEC championship game played out – for late tuners-in, Alabama beat Georgia 32-28 on Dec. 1 – but what exactly went into those 15 overstuffed seconds? Why did what happened happen?
We begin at the end, or very near it. (All the voices heard below spoke at a Georgia media session this week in Athens.) An apparent clinching interception by Dee Milliner with 45 seconds remaining was overturned by video review, handing the Bulldogs a glimmer of life that would become a starburst. Quarterback Aaron Murray found tight end Arthur Lynch for 15 yards, then wide receiver Tavarres King for 23, then Lynch again for 26.
In 30 seconds the Bulldogs traveled 64 yards against the nation’s top-ranked defense. A game that had seen five lead changes was eight yards from a sixth.
Murray: “We’d gotten a little break (on the non-interception), and we’ve been a good one-minute team all year. And we about did it again.”
Lynch: “They had to be thinking, ‘It’s over, it’s over,’ (on the apparent interception) and then we hit them with two big plays – Tavarres’ catch where he took a shot and my play. They were on their heels. It was like in a boxing match: You hit them as much as you can.”
King: “It was like a movie … We marched right down the field. We thought we were going to win.”
The Georgia Dome was louder than it has been in its 20 years of operation. Murray could have spiked the ball to stop the clock after the restart and allow his team, which had no timeouts remaining, to collect itself. He looked toward the sideline and, asking for permission, made a spiking gesture. Coach Mark Richt signaled for Murray to run a play instead.
Murray: “I thought we were going to call the spike, but I don’t think it was a bad call at all by them. It was there. It was open. We liked our matchup … We just wanted to get a quick play into the end zone. It was either going to be a touchdown or an incompletion.”
Lynch: “We’re not in the right situation to spike the ball. With a team like Alabama and a coach like Nick Saban, you don’t want to give him any (extra) chance to prepare.”
Richt: “Part of going no-huddle is when you have the defense on the run you snap the ball again. You don’t need to stop play. Play was stopped because we had a first down. With 15 seconds, strategically if you are able to call a play and it’s incomplete you have time for two more plays. You can run three plays. You want to give yourself as many opportunities as you can. If you clock the ball you probably only get two shots.”
As the Bulldogs were rushing to the line, offensive coordinator Mike Bobo, seated upstairs in the coaches’ booth, ordered a play called “Stout.” Bobo would later tell ESPN’s Mark Schlabach that if Georgia had it to do again, it would have spiked the ball. Richt insisted this week that not spiking the ball was the correct call, and as justification he referenced his teaching.
Near the end of the 2001 season, Richt’s first at Georgia, the Bulldogs faced first-and-goal from the 1 trailing Auburn 24-17 with 16 seconds remaining. Richt, then his own offensive coordinator, called a Jasper Sanks run, which was stuffed. Time expired before Georgia could manage another snap. Richt’s first words at his postgame briefing: “That was a bad one, wasn’t it?”
That offseason, Richt sought out Homer Smith, a renowned offensive coordinator who was seen as a master of clock management. Smith, who died in 2011, wasn’t an advocate of spiking.
Richt: “If we spike it, strategically you give them time to gather up and get their senses and get their calls in … We had that Auburn game years ago where we didn’t manage the clock well, and that offseason we go see Homer Smith … He says clocking the ball is for people who don’t have a plan. If you’re prepared and you’ve moved the chains and the clock is stopped and you’ve got the play that you like, then call it. Because if you call it you have a greater chance of getting three plays compared to clocking it and probably only get two plays … As we’re hustling down to the ball, the play was called. It’s exactly what we would have called if we had spiked it. It was the same call.”
It took Georgia five seconds to snap the ball, surely a couple of beats longer than Homer Smith would have liked. Before the snap, receiver Chris Conley stepped toward Murray, as if seeking clarification. And it was clear a moment after the snap that Georgia hadn’t wrong-footed the Tide. It was also clear that the Bulldogs knew their assignments. Every receiver went where assigned, and each was shadowed. In sum, nobody messed up. In the most frenzied moment of a frenzied game, the nation’s No. 2 and 3 ranked teams showed their class.
“Stout” is a simple play. The Bulldogs dispatched four receivers, with the two wideouts– Malcolm Mitchell on the right and King on the left – running “fade” routes into the end zone. The slot men – Conley on the right, Lynch on the left – ran “speed outs,” which are underneath routes toward the sideline.
Richt: “When a guy runs a ‘fade’ and (another) guy runs a ’speed out,’ if it’s zone coverage cornerbacks are taught not to go to the back of the end zone. They are only going to go so far. If you put a guy in front of him and a guy behind him you put a stretch on him, so you’re trying to throw the ball to what looks like might be the shorter guy, and he freezes and the ball goes over the top. That’s if it’s zone.”
Milliner, an All-American cornerback, took Mitchell man-to-man and appeared to have him blanketed near the front corner of the end zone. Appearances, however, can deceive.
Richt: “To us offensively, there (are) no shutdown corners. There’s no coverage that if the ball is placed properly, the (defender) can win. If the guy does a good job on the jam and doesn’t get beat deep, than he’s more vulnerable to the back-shoulder throw. If he’s lagging for that or trying to be a hero, than he can get run by. The quarterback has to recognize the coverage and throw the ball according to what he sees.”
The best pass Murray throws is the back-shoulder ball, which can seem like an underthrow but isn’t. He used back-shoulder balls to spectacular effect in the comeback victory over Florida in 2011, and it was a back-shoulder ball he loosed on the final play of another furious rally.
Murray: “We throw that all the time. It’s one-on-one. It’s a back-shoulder fade, which we’re great at … It’s definitely one of my favorite throws. Guys have a great understanding of the route.”
Richt: “You throw the ball according to what you see. Murray did right. It was more of a tight coverage. We throw the heck out of that back-shoulder throw … Watch the last two seasons. He’s as good at doing that as anybody.”
The back-shoulder throw calls for a lower trajectory. (The over-the-top fade traces a higher arc.) Murray, who insists he’s 6-foot-1, isn’t the tallest of quarterbacks. This became an issue when linebacker C.J. Mosley, another All-American, blitzed off the right side of Georgia’s line.
There was never a chance he would reach Murray – running back Todd Gurley barred the blitzer’s path – but Mosley did as pass rushers are taught: If you can’t sack the quarterback, get your hands up. Even as he was trying to skirt Gurley, Mosley leaped and swung his left arm.
Murray: “He pretty much stopped his rush. He jumped in the air and got a finger on it. He nicked it.”
Enter Conley, a designated decoy. When Murray delivered, Conley was running toward the sideline.
Conley: “I didn’t see him throw it. I didn’t see it tipped. I just saw it coming down.”
Richt: “You throw it where hopefully we catch it for a touchdown or if it’s incomplete you’ve got two more plays. You don’t want to complete it to anybody in play, but that play is not designed to go to that guy. That guy (Conley) is basically a decoy in zone coverage to try to get the corner to bite the cheese. In man coverage, he’s not in play at all because the ball is going either over the top (on a fade) or a back-shoulder throw.”
Conley: “Initially I couldn’t even see the ball. I saw the quarterback and the offensive linemen looking up, and I reacted.”
Watch the CBS replay, and you’ll see that Murray throws with eight seconds remaining and Conley catches the ball at 0:07. The sophomore receiver, who’s an honor roll student, had less than a second to react to the biggest moment of the biggest Georgia game in 30 years, and it wasn’t a moment anyone could have foreseen.
Conley: “When I saw the ball flipping end over end … you catch it and think about it later.”
Lynch: “Your main objective as a receiver is to catch the ball. For you to process it all – people can say, ‘awareness this’ and ‘awareness that,’ but that had nothing to do with (awareness). He was just trying to make a play.”
King: “Everyone would have caught it. (He pointed to various media members.) You would have caught it, and you would have caught it, and you would have caught it – especially if you’re a receiver.”
Richt: “For every receiver, his reaction would obviously be to catch the ball. A wide receiver catches the ball. That’s his nature.”
At the 5, Conley turned to track the deflected pass. His back was to the end zone, meaning he had no way of knowing what was behind him. As it happened, two defenders were within a yard of him, though cornerback Geno Smith had fallen after bumping Conley on his route.
King: “If (Conley) bats it down and there’s nobody around him, he looks like an idiot. I would have caught it.”
The trouble with catching it was that Conley had to score or time would expire. He actually made a nice grab of the fluttering ball, but he couldn’t turn and try to fight his way to the goal line. He fell without being touched.
Conley: “I caught it and lost my footing. You can always blame somebody, but in that moment, in that second … I guess it’s a learning experience.”
Really, though, what’s to learn? That you should ignore every fiber of instinct and every bit of training and NOT catch a ball that falls to you? That any human being should process data faster than an iPhone Siri? Two seconds after he fell to the turf, Conley knew his team would have been better served had he dropped the ball on purpose, but he didn’t have two seconds.
Murray: “With how fast we were going and how everything was happening at once, it’s hard not to catch it.”
The clock hit zero with Georgia five yards short of an SEC championship and a berth against Notre Dame in the BCS title game. The Bulldogs had gone 80 yards in 68 seconds without a timeout against mighty Alabama. They’d needed 85.
Richt: “I think everybody (among Georgia fans) felt like we were there in the game that meant everything. Not many people were in a game like that. There were three teams left (with a chance at the BCS title) and we were one of them. We played a great football team and played a great game. I’d say the same thing I said after the game. I was extremely disappointed in the outcome of the game, but not disappointed one bit in our players and coaches and how we battled.”
Murray: “I can’t sleep at night. I literally replay the entire game every night before I go to bed … It’s a game that will probably haunt me the rest of my life.”
Conley: “The whole Bulldog Nation has been messaging me or finding a way to get in touch with me. I can’t tell you how many people have been congratulating me on the season or telling me it’s not over for me … Some people have sent me Bible verses. I remember the one, ‘Cast your cares upon the Lord.’ (Psalm 55:22.) It helped me realize there was more to life than football, that this was not the biggest thing in life.”
Murray: “Certain songs remind me of the game. It’s like a playlist.”
King: “I’m not fully over it. I’ve still got a bitter taste in my mouth.”
Murray: “I don’t even want to think about how the state of Georgia would have been if we’d have pulled it out. It probably would have been one of the best, if not THE best, wins in Georgia history.”
It would have been, but it wasn’t. And from the moment the classic game ended, we’ve all asked: What happens if Mosley doesn’t tip the pass?
Murray: “Oh, it’s a touchdown. It’s a 50-50 ball, and (Milliner is) facing Malcolm and Malcolm is supposed to go up and catch the ball. It’s not like the guy is facing me where he could have made a play on it. He’d have had to strip it out of Malcolm’s hands. It would have been up to Malcolm to make a play.”
Richt: “It was the play we wanted to call. The problem was that the ball got tipped … You’re talking about one or two digits of a finger. That’s how close a game is sometimes.”
By Mark Bradley