Fifteen fateful seconds: The Bulldogs look back in anguish

The heat of the moment: Aaron Murray tells Chris Conley he should have dropped the ball. (AJC photo by Curtis Compton)

Aaron Murray and Chris Conley after the completion that wasn't supposed to be. (AJC photo by Curtis Compton)

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.

The way it ended. (AJC photo by Brant Sanderlin)

Chris Conley catches and falls. (AJC photo by Curtis Compton)

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

459 comments Add your comment

WHO CARES

December 15th, 2012
2:22 am

Time to get over it. Next.

Rick in Warner Robins

December 15th, 2012
5:29 am

Oh give it a rest, UGA was not going to beat Bama no matter what. Being the chokers they are, they didn’t have a chance from the beginning. Had Bama not gotten screwed on that so-called tipped pass (that was clearly untouched) they’d have gotten the interference call and gone on and scored. UGA was just lucky they didn’t get beat worse than they did. Cornhuskers will handle them with ease.

Smokewagon

December 15th, 2012
7:05 am

I was just starting to heal from the gut wretching loss to Penn State in 82 and then this occurred.

The New Horizon

December 15th, 2012
7:13 am

I have the game on my DVR, and I’ve replayed the last fifteen seconds at least a dozen times. It’s a case study in mismanaging the clock and the game. What else would you expect from a 3rd rate wannabe coach like Richt?

And it’s fifteen very satisfying seconds watching the low class leghumpers going down to the superbly coached scholar-athletes of Alabama.

Buckeye

December 15th, 2012
7:33 am

Morning dogs,

Today, we all cry for Newtown, CT and 26 families. Parents still have kindergartners lying in blood together in a classroom and can not go to them. Unimaginable.

salsaman

December 15th, 2012
7:34 am

The best thing about this game is listening to Bradley whine and cry so much. It was a very good football game but not the classic Bradley proclaims it to be. A classic is when the team scores
the TD and wins not when they screw up!
Look at UGA’s and Murray’s record against top ten teams. This was no different. They lost.
One last time. Get over it. You had your chance and blew it and i doubt you will get another one anytime soon.

[...] looks back in anguish at its fateful 15 [...]

Faulkville Dawg

December 15th, 2012
8:08 am

In my opinion the Dawg d Line was worn out by having to play the option the 2 weeks before this game. I believe the cumulative effect of playing those 2 teams and all the rushing plays they run plus being in pads all week to prepare for the option just wore the d-line down. I wish we could drop Tech until CPJ is gone.

phil

December 15th, 2012
8:16 am

They handled it by choking. Coaches, players, you name it. It is what it is. Men step up when it matters. Here, they fell on their faces. So be it.

kaput

December 15th, 2012
8:21 am

The part I love is that you guys are still living the nightmare.

lol

We (did) Run The East

December 15th, 2012
8:21 am

It was all there for the Dawgs to take, but CMR blew it! Plain and simple, CMR screwed up! Admit it Dawg fans. Better get your mind right for Nebraska or Dawgs move to 3rd in East again, just like last years end of year rankings.
In my eye, UGA lost all respect when they where smacked in the mouth on Oct 6th by SC and just rolled over and played dead. That UGA team did not deserve a shot at NC.

beamMe

December 15th, 2012
8:38 am

spike the ball–get 3 plays–win the game. Very simple.
1980—a long time ago.

AltamahaDawg

December 15th, 2012
8:48 am

Last 3 posters could not explain thier post if thier pants were on fire. I know. I’ve asked. Conformist nonsence copied from each other..

Wet Willie...keep on smiling

December 15th, 2012
8:51 am

what we can take from the game is….don’t ask Mark Richt why he can’t beat someone on the big stage.

and

Nick Saban is short …but looks tall when standing on the big stage receiving another trophy…Jordan Jenkins

Georgiee defense is pretty dang good I think but not at the level as thought …right Rambo

The next time the UGA AD goes public and puts Mike Slive and the SEC in a position they don’t want to be will not happen….right Greg

Coward of Bulldawg County

December 15th, 2012
8:59 am

you can “what if” this till the cows come home…deal in facts dummies…in your last 8 games against top competition (2xFlorida, 2x South Carolina, LSU, Bama, Boise State, Michigan State) your precious little bulldogs are an amazingly poor 2-6…after next season, you could easily be riding a 2-10 three year stretch and you think you deserve national recognition?…yeah, right….keep celebrating close losses and wins over Buffalo and Tech…

Jon Gloer

December 15th, 2012
8:59 am

One thing I have learned in 30 years of coaching is that most of you should have gone into coaching.Aubdawg looks like he already is a head coach.Go sit in a film room one week and break down film for 30 hours…

Joey

December 15th, 2012
9:12 am

Good morning, Buckeye. Here’s a little something you might be interested in reading. I’ll try to refrain from laughing . . . . . . . sorry, I just can’t. Hahahaha.

http://network.yardbarker.com/college_football/article_external/maurice_clarett_i_got_paid_more_in_college_than_i_do_now_in_the_ufl/12439528?linksrc=home_x_rg_head_12439528

Joey

December 15th, 2012
9:26 am

“In my eye, UGA lost all respect when they where smacked in the mouth on Oct 6th by SC and just rolled over and played dead.”
***********************************
We Ran the East One Year, what does that eye of yours tell you about a team that got beat 44-11?

Legacy of Losers-Crap Fan

December 15th, 2012
9:26 am

Cliff is an idiot!!! How can anyone defend the coaching staff in the final seconds of this game is beyond me. This defines the coaching staff at UGA. Unable to make quality decisions in highly charged competitive games. And as long as UGA maintains the pee wee/t-bat mentality of; oh, well we almost did it; give everyone a game ball/trophy….it will never change.
Get the water girl off the frickin’ field, grow some balls and imitate Saban!!!!!!!1

Big Time Loser

December 15th, 2012
9:33 am

You guys celebrate losses?? Can I join your fanbase? I’ve been looking for a group like this all my life. Sounds like we have alot in common. Yeah, GO DAWGS! Man that felt natural! LOSERS UNITE! We now have a home!

Joey

December 15th, 2012
9:35 am

You’re right Legacy, anybody could call plays that move a team 80 yards in 50 seconds with no timeouts, on the best D in the country, only to be denied a TD because of a tipped pass.

Fire their asses!

The fact that you called ANYBODY an idiot is remarkable . . .

Big Time Loser

December 15th, 2012
9:44 am

What makes it so cool to join the Bulldog Fanclub is you can make wild assumptions like “we would have scored if it hadn’t been for that tipped pass”. Even though history indicated differently, as a Dawg fan, I can buck the trend of history and say we would have won, and almost everyone will agree with me! This is sweet! Thanks for letting me in the club.

BOY THAT DAWG IS UGLY

December 15th, 2012
9:47 am

Are we still talking about this? Geez…..you may want to focus on the Cornhuskers. When you get through reliving this you may want to relive Herschel’s running over Bill Bates.

SHUT UP TECH !!!!!!!!!!

December 15th, 2012
9:52 am

shut up tech you will never get there !!!!!!!!!!!!!!

JDawg

December 15th, 2012
9:56 am

Don’t you just love the posts from the GT fans. They spend more time commenting on the Bulldogs, because they envy the Dawg Nation, and are so insecure about their own lame team. Very sad group of people. GT fans, focus on your own team and what it needs to be relevant, then come back when you have done something. Pitiful.

Go Tech

December 15th, 2012
10:59 am

I had heard of Weimaraner dogs, but until recently I had not heard of Whiner dogs.
They thought they were good enough to beat Bama (we knew better).
But now they are in their proper place, a non BCS bowl.
The Capitol One bowl………………..ha ha ha ha ha.

bamaguy

December 15th, 2012
11:07 am

“spike the ball and we win the game” is making some pretty strong assumptions, there.

But that said, it will be interesting to see how good UGA is next year. Alabama has had major migrations to the NFL for the past three seasons and still puts a championship caliber team on the field. My opinion of Coach Richt and his recruiting/coaching ability will all rest on how good UGA is next year.

Lol

December 15th, 2012
11:20 am

Lol. The biggest win in Georgia history? No wonder you lost.

bamaguy

December 15th, 2012
11:22 am

It was one of the most exciting games I have witnessed in years (Rocky Block in 2009 comes close). Don’t do like Alabama did in 2008 and go lose to Nebraska (Uath) in the bowl game just because you are disappointed in the SECCG loss.

poise

December 15th, 2012
11:56 am

…after checking back from time to time, gt fans get really ecstatic 2c georiga lose on national television dont you…eh eh eh, really dont make a difference if its the #1, #2 or any rank team…and yes i’m lol, bcuz who or what is a Georgia Tech receives bowl waiver…oh well good luck, and i like georgia tech except when they play georgia….poise

SSIgator

December 15th, 2012
11:57 am

This is still going? Wow, put another log on the fire and break out the VHS tape of the 1980 NC game, if you are going to keep re-living something.

poise

December 15th, 2012
12:22 pm

…alabama, florida, tennessee or south caroline…ima neva recognize you by the nickname-code of being friends or liking your team, its just tough love i wish neva exist but we all know better…we lost, i’ve accepted and the last game of the year i would love 2c georgia to smack nebraska around….-prolly wont happen tho, damn right i’ll settle for a 12 win season i’m not stupid-

Scott Brantley

December 15th, 2012
12:46 pm

Old news, Dawgs! The Tide Rolled, The Dawgs did Fold! Notre Dame don’t want none! ROLL TIDE ROLL!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Piney Woods Pete

December 15th, 2012
2:01 pm

The last fifteen seconds epitomizes the 3rd rate coaching at UGA and the lack of intelligence by the UGA players.

Joey

December 15th, 2012
2:59 pm

What does a 6-7 record in the LIGHTWEIGHT acc epitomize, Piney Peter?

SatillaDawg

December 15th, 2012
3:13 pm

Great effort Dawgs, but I’m with Aaron on this one.

Spike the ball. Get organized. Then run the play.

Oh well. Settle in, long-suffering Bulldawg fans.

It could be another 32 years before we again get this close to the National Championship game.

Glad I was at UGA for that glorious 1980 season.

Glory, Glory to Old Georgia.

Techster

December 15th, 2012
3:28 pm

You’re pathetic dog fans. Quit blubbering and man up. You lost to a better team.

Johnny Vaught

December 15th, 2012
5:24 pm

Get over it Homer. Old news. How long are you going to keep dredging this up. They got beat. Live with it.

Stinger 2

December 15th, 2012
5:49 pm

Mark: Have you thought about or decided what your next story will be about?
I for one cannot wait for something new.

DONNAN OF A NEW ERA

December 15th, 2012
5:50 pm

“The Bulldogs look back in anguish”

Get over it already. The DWAGS lost.

DONNAN OF A NEW ERA

December 15th, 2012
5:51 pm

“You’re pathetic dog fans. Quit blubbering and man up. You lost to a better team.

They can’t get over it because they have NOTHING else to talk about.

Wet Willie...keep on smiling

December 15th, 2012
7:50 pm

Time to move on. Eddie lacey has left the building just like Elvis.

Techster

December 15th, 2012
7:55 pm

It has got to where dog fans are not only embarrassing themselves but the whole state of Georgia too.

Mudcatjoe

December 15th, 2012
8:28 pm

You got your asses kicked! Get over it. Move on!

Buzz2011

December 15th, 2012
8:41 pm

Big basketball game at Stedgeman tonight. There must have
been at least 150 people at the game. The Dawgs lost again
and look like a high school practice squad…

Mark

December 15th, 2012
8:47 pm

Going to watch the game again tonight. The ending is the best.

Mark

December 15th, 2012
8:50 pm

Love the ending of the game. Watch it over and over.

phil

December 15th, 2012
9:20 pm

We will never get over it. EVER!! Richt blew it and ruined many lives in the process….

phil

December 15th, 2012
9:21 pm

And fire mark fox!! I said it two yrs ago, yet here we still are.

stendek

December 15th, 2012
9:57 pm

Hi Mark. Sorry to vent here but Chippy Powerless has blocked me for a reason known only to him. Pertains to Mr Choke Aaron Murray. Please bear with me. It is Christmas. Almost…Definitely time for Aaron Murray to test Canadian Football League and National Football League waters. Actually that should have occurred three seasons ago! QB who always choked on big stage will be quickly forgotten by Bulldog Nation. Mind has tendency to block out really unpleasant memories. If only the Dawgs had a QB with heart against Bama. What might have been! NC #2. Oh well. (Thanks) Merry Christmas buddy.