ATHENS — Kirby Smart is the first to tell you that an offense needs to be able to make a yard when it needs to.
But Saturday night the Georgia football coach passed up a chance to go for a fourth-and-1 at the Notre Dame 26 with just under 7 minutes remaining.
Instead, Rodrigo Blankenship booted a 43-yard field goal to give the Bulldogs a 23-10 lead en route to the 23-17 victory.
Last November, leading Auburn 27-10 with 3:20 left, Smart opted for a fake field goal explaining a 20-point lead wasn’t enough.
Thus, Smart’s decision to play it safe against the Irish raised eyebrows. The speculation ranged from national television, into the fan base and even in the Bulldogs’ huddle.
“If I was being smart,” said QB Jake Fromm, who scrambled 9 yards on the previous play, “I should have lined everybody up and called another play really fast.”
Former NFL quarterback and CBS analyst Gary Danielson said he would have gone for it.
“You’ve got all these 5-star offensive linemen, do you try to make this fourth down play?” Danielson said during the broadcast. “I think If I’m Kirby Smart, I think I’d go for this,
“I just don’t see what a field goal gives you. I know you could kick another field goal later, I get that, but right now I think i might be worth trying to pick this up, and it’s less than a yard.”
Smart talks often about grinding teams down with the run game for moments just like that one. He indicated after the game its was a hard decision not to go for it.
“I wanted to, I didn’t realize how far it was,” Smart said. “When they went back and reviewed it, I thought it was going to be inches. Then, once we looked out there and said, ‘that thing is almost a full yard’ we went with the points.”
Notre Dame responded with a 75-yard touchdown drive to cut the lead to 23-17. Then, the Irish forced Georgia to go three-and-out and Jake Camarda shanked a 27-yard punt.
Suddenly, the Irish had the ball at their own 48 with 2 minutes left down 6 points.
Smart knew he put himself in position to be second-guessed.
“We were playing good defense and we felt they had to score two touchdowns to beat us, and that ended up being the difference in the game,” Smart said. “But that’s one of those, all you guys can second-guess me, if they score a touchdown, ‘why didn’t you go for it.’ That’s the life we lead.
“It’s a tough call, because you have to feel comfortable you can get a yard when you have to.”
Except Smart did not feel comfortable Georgia could do that.
Recent history is one reason why.
The Bulldogs, for all their size, power and weight on the offensive line, and talent in the backfield, have not been an effective short-yardage team the past two seasons.
Georgia was stuffed twice in short-yardage situations in the second half of is 30-6 win over Vanderbilt. D’Andre Swift was dropped for a 3-yard loss on a fourth-and-1 at the Commodores’ 17. Brian Herrien was stopped on a third-and-1 at the Vandy 19 in the fourth quarter.
Notre Dame entered Saturday night’s game 120th in the nation defending the run, but coach Brian Kelly said before the game he wasn’t concerned about the Bulldogs’ offensive line.
In fact, Kelly said Georgia’s size was actually an “advantage” for the Irish.
“It’s an advantage for us,” Kelly said. “We play these teams that slant and angle, and we haven’t been very good with slant and angle teams, so we’ll know where they are, and that’s a good thing.”
Smart and the Bulldogs have a bye week before traveling to Knoxville to play a Tennessee football team that has its challenges on the defensive line.
It’s a good bet Smart will work with coordinator James Coley on more short-yardage plays. The power run game is an element of offense that Smart will insist on regardless of the offensive coordinator.
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