Miami Gardens, Fla. — Geno Smith sat in the stands at Sun Life Stadium on Saturday. Come Monday night, the freshman cornerback from Atlanta’s St. Pius X will play for Alabama in the BCS title game, and his mother and grandmother will be on hand to watch. But on this humid Media Day, Smith was answering questions about the final play of the Tide’s last game.
“It all ended up working out,” Smith said, but here in South Florida it has been revealed that not everything about the last snap of the classic SEC championship game against Georgia went according to Bama plans. Ten Tide defenders did what they were supposed to do; Geno Smith was the exception.
He dropped into coverage when he should have blitzed. He doesn’t know why. He heard the defensive call — “Spear,” in Alabama parlance — and just went elsewhere. “I was going to take the back (Georgia’s Todd Gurley),” Smith said. “I wound up taking the dude in front of me, No. 31.”
No. 31 for Georgia was receiver Chris Conley, who ultimately caught the pass thrown by Aaron Murray intended for Malcolm Mitchell but redirected by the left hand of the leaping linebacker C.J. Mosley. Conley fell after the catch, and the final five seconds expired and the Bulldogs fell five yards short of playing Notre Dame for the national championship.
You can see Smith in AJC photographer Curtis Compton’s shot of Conley’s catch. The defender was on the turf, having brushed against Conley. Where Smith was supposed to be, however, was where Mosley ended up: Coming off Georgia’s right flank, trying to harass Murray.
“We wound up with two people covering Chris Conley,” said Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart, a Georgia alum. “When a team has to snap the ball in a hurry, we think it’s an advantage to pressure. We call it a ‘fastball’ play.”
Both Mosley and Smith were supposed to take their key from Gurley. Had the back run a pass route, they’d have shadowed him. When he stayed put to block, that was their cue to rush.
Said Mosley: “It was a called blitz, but I had the back. At the end of the game, momentum was high, anxiety was high, so I just went and pressured the back.”
Smith: “He wound up doing my job.”
Smart: “Geno was supposed to be coming. Both had Gurley. We call that our ‘green dog’ blitz. If he’d come, we might have had four hands in (Murray’s) face. On the other hand, he might have batted the ball for an incompletion and they’d have had four or five seconds.”
Here again, we see how the fickle fingers of fate — on Saturday, Mosley said “I couldn’t even tell you” how many digits he’d applied to Murray’s pass — favored Alabama in a moment that will long live in the memory of two famous programs. Say Smith had been the one in the path of Murray’s throw: He’s 6-foot, as opposed to Mosley’s 6-2. And, as Smart noted in a Friday briefing, Mosley has shown “a knack” for batting passes in practice and in games and “was a really good basketball player in high school.”
There was also a massive human element involved: Smart’s best friend is Mike Bobo, the offensive coordinator who called the play that Smart’s defense defused. “Mike felt (Murray) should have thrown the fade to the other side,” Smart said, meaning to Tavarres King on the left and not Mitchell on the right. “We had our best corner (All-American Dee Milliner) on that side.”
(Bobo did not respond to a mid-December invitation to revisit the end of the Alabama game.)
Smart: “I found Mike in the locker room afterward. We were both sick to our stomachs going in. It was like when we played Will (Muschamp, the former Bulldog who’s now Florida’s coach and who was Texas’ defensive coordinator in the BCS title game in January 2010), but I wasn’t actually matched up against Will.”
Last month Murray said he believed his pass for Mitchell, if untouched, would have been a touchdown. “I don’t think it would,” Milliner said Saturday. “But I’m glad we’re here, and they’re in the land of ‘could’ve, should’ve, would’ve.’ ”
Likewise glad was the freshman Smith, whose mistake did Alabama no harm and perhaps some good. (Had he not bumped Conley after Mosley’s deflection, might the receiver have kept his feet?) Even before Milliner’s apparent clinching interception was overturned with 45 seconds remaining, Smith wasn’t sure his Tide would prevail.
“We were going off the field, we were on the sideline thinking we’d won, and I was thinking, ‘I don’t know if that’s a catch,’ ” Smith said. “Then they hit us with three passes and they were in our red zone, and I was thinking, ‘Oh, man.’ ”
But all’s well that ends well … right? Mosley said he and Smith laughed about the missed assignment afterward, with Mosley saying, ‘Better not do that again, next time they call it.’ ”
Still, it must be noted that Smith wasn’t laughing, or even smiling, when recounting his lapse Saturday. The Alabama program isn’t based on merriment.
“Everything worked out,” Smith said again, still not sure how.
Further reading: Fifteen fateful seconds – the Georgia Bulldogs look back in anguish.
BCS background: History may favor the underdog Irish, but Alabama is too good.
By Mark Bradley