At Second Glance: Final play, officiating, Georgia’s ecstasy and then agony

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Nick Chubb (left) and Sony Michel walk off the field for the final time as Georgia players, escorted by Georgia coach Kirby Smart.

Before delving into the whole thing again, here’s a a memory that stands out from the aftermath of Monday night’s National Championship Game: Georgia senior Davin Bellamy sitting at his locker, shaking his head amid the curses and other palpable frustration still present in the locker room. About half the team was lingering in the shower, understandably still not ready to talk about it.

Bellamy, a team leader to the very end, took the arrows for them.

“Of course guys are heartbroken,” Bellamy said. “We should’ve won the game.”

Still, what a season, it was pointed out. In fact, some Bulldog fans passing the locker room had shouted out cheers for the players. Even after the heartbreak of this national championship loss, they appreciated the effort and the joy this season brought.

“Yeah,” Bellamy said. “But we should’ve won that game.”

***    ***    ***

Each week during the regular season, we re-watch the previous game in order to glean more information, offer more analysis and simply see what we may have missed from watching in person. Now the final edition of the season: Georgia’s 26-23 overtime loss to Alabama in the national title game.

The final play

The play itself is rather simple. Alabama receiver DeVonta Smith, who had not caught a pass in regulation, lined up on the left. Smith, a freshman, had been committed to Georgia before the coaching change two years ago. Malkom Parrish lined up against him. Safety Dominick Sanders, recruited specifically by Jeremy Pruitt four years ago, was the safety on that side. It was second-and-26.

When Smith went streaking down the field, he went right by Parrish, and suddenly had a clean look at the end zone. The pass from Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa was right in stride, and the game was over. It all happened in seconds.

Georgia cornerback Malkom Parrish with his arms up as the national championship ends on an Alabama touchdown. (Curtis Compton/AJC)

There will be debate for years on what could have been done. Parrish didn’t stop Smith’s path well enough, either with a jam or just getting in his path. Sanders, playing on top, was following Tagovailoa’s eyes, and when those eyes briefly looked to the other side, Sanders went that way, and before he went back, it was too late.

Georgia was in a cover-2 defense. That normally means a safety in Sanders’ position needs to stay on that side of the field until the ball is thrown. Do your job, as the mantra goes. Perhaps there is another explanation, but at this point without speaking to the particulars, that’s all we can go on, what we know to be every person’s normal job in a cover-2.

There was something else useful that was gleaned on re-watch: Go back to Alabama’s game-tying touchdown late in the fourth quarter. Sanders is watching Tagovailoa’s eyes the entire time, and actually forces him to adjust and take longer to throw it. But Tagovailoa just makes a great play, waiting for Calvin Ridley to hit a spot behind the defense. (Aaron Davis was guarding Ridley on the play, and Sanders gets blocked by a couple players.) But it was as if Sanders thought he could follow the play by following the freshman QB’s eyes – because on that play he could.

The officiating 

There was little doubt that the Rose Bowl was an overtime thriller in a game that was well-officiated and without controversy. The national championship was also an overtime thriller. Otherwise …

Tyler Simmons was not offsides before he blocked the punt. He almost was, and the replay shows him hesitate at the last moment, sensing he might be too soon. But the ball was already being snapped at that point. The official clearly was thrown off on that, too. The flag is being thrown before the blocked punt, for anybody who thinks it was one of those “Hey, we gotta keep this game close” calls.

But two Alabama players also false-started, which wasn’t called. If the officials had gotten it right, it would have been no block punt, just Alabama punting 5 yards further back. But if the Alabama players hadn’t jumped, then the Simmons block should have counted.

That’s not a reviewable play. Considering it’s not a judgment call – we could tell easily on replay whether it should’ve been called – one wonders why it’s not reviewable.

There was a face-mask call against D’Andre Swift on the subsequent drive that should have given Georgia a first down at the 48. Instead it was third-and-21 from the 25. How was it missed? The only official in the screen as it’s happening is the referee, who is about 10 yards behind the play, but appears to be watching it. He may have been obscured by Fromm, but with an eight-man crew, somebody should have noticed it, especially when one man has the ball and the play is nearing an end.

And there was a false start that could have been called on Alabama’s game-tying touchdown – a not insignificant missed call because it was fourth-and-4 from the 7. It well could have caused Nick Saban to take the field goal and go down 20-16 with 3:50 left. Now, I put “could” in italics because I watched the replay about 10 times, and it’s really, really close. Najee Harris, after motioning out of the backfield to wide receiver, moves as soon as Tagovailoa claps his hands for the snap. I think Harris ends up going a split, split second before the snap. It’s also not egregious, and ultimately didn’t really affect the play.

But could it have been called? Yes.

Alabama’s Mack Wilson, according to the considerable amount of Georgia fans in attendance, could have been called after he pushed Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm, who was on the ground after a run. There was an official right there and he didn’t call it, and Fromm, Riley Ridley and Andrew Thomas didn’t protest too vehemently. It was also right in front of the Georgia bench, whose reaction, if any, was hard to gauge. This may just be a case of something looking worse from afar than it really was, or the officials deciding to swallow their whistle at that point of the game.

Some have also pointed to a clothesline tackle made against Mecole Hardman on a fourth-quarter kickoff by Alabama’s Mekhi Brown. I actually asked Hardman about it after the game and he called it a good, clean hit. And the replay backs that up.

But the other stuff … yeah.

I’m not one to reflexively dismiss conspiracy theories – especially when it comes to certain pro sports – but I don’t see any reason for a Big Ten crew to favor Alabama over Georgia, or for any higher powers to favor one team over the other. The first two penalties of the night were actually against Alabama, and were also key swings: A false start to negate a made field goal, and an encroachment call to give Georgia a first down. (They were good calls.) Alabama was whistled for five penalties in the first half, and Georgia for only two.

The crew just missed some key calls. They had a bad night —  on the biggest night of the season.

Two underrated plays that turned the game 

These haven’t been discussed enough in the postgame narrative:

  • Tagovailoa’s third-down scramble: Alabama was facing third-and-7 near midfield on its second drive of the second half. Tagovailoa was pressured to the right, but escaped and went left for 9 yards and a first down. Five plays later, the Crimson Tide got a touchdown to make it 13-7. On the scramble, four different Bulldogs got hands on him – Bellamy, D’Andre Walker, Trenton Thompson and Roquan Smith – and couldn’t bring him down. Yeah, those are missed tackles, but those are also really good players, and on that play Tagovailoa simply made a great play. There was also no contain to the left side. Either way, it was a confidence-boosting spark for Tagovailoa and the Alabama offense.
  • Jake Fromm’s second interception and the run-back: Deandre Baker had just picked off a pass at the Alabama 39. This was a prime opportunity to build on a 13-point lead, and with less time left in the game it could’ve been a knockout blow. Fromm, committing a rare mistake, violated the old Mike Bobo rule of not turning a bad play into a catastrophe. Fromm was initially pressured by defensive tackle Da’Ron Payne – who had gone by Lamont Gaillard – and with Deshawn Hand (being blocked by Kendall Baker) right in front of him, Fromm tried to dump it off to Sony Michel, who was indeed open right in front of him. But Fromm threw it before he looked up all the way, so it doinked off Hank’s helmet. Alabama’s Raekwon Davis had great awareness, grabbing it out of the air and then rumbling down to the Georgia 40.

Georgia’s offensive play calling

Before we delve into what went wrong down the stretch, it’s only fair to remember that plenty went right.

Georgia had 223 offensive yards in the first half against the nation’s best defense. And despite being a run-oriented offense, the Bulldogs passed for 126 yards in the half. The play calling by Jim Chaney was aggressive and creative, such as the Hardman touchdown run out of the wildcat, when Hardman and Michel both lined up in the backfield.

By the time Fromm hit Hardman with that 80-yard strike in the third quarter, Georgia had 20 points and 309 yards, averaging 5.7 yards per play. If the game ends right there, statues are being built attesting to Chaney’s brilliance.

So then what happened?

First there was the call that led to Fromm’s interception, which is easy to debate: Why risk something like that happening when you have the opponent down? Well, the counter to that is why not go for the finishing punch, and your team has been passing well.

But on the subsequent drive, when the lead was down to 20-10, they did get conservative: Run-run-pass (for a third-down conversion), and then run-run-pass again, this time for a punt.

Georgia began the game 8-for-14 on third downs. It was 0-for-5 the rest of the way.

There’s been a lot made of not getting the ball to Sony Michel enough down the stretch. He did only touch the ball four times in the fourth quarter – but Georgia only had 13 plays. That’s about the same ratio as prior to the fourth quarter (10 out of 62 plays).

But following a 13-yard run with 13:54 left in the fourth quarter, Michel only touched it one more time. He never did in overtime.

Georgia’s offense as a whole basically stopped after a Chubb 7-yard run with 13 minutes left in the fourth quarter. From that point on Georgia had 12 plays that combined for minus-1 yards and zero first downs.

Here’s the ugly breakdown:

  • Second-and-3 from UGA 48: Chubb rush up middle for loss of 1.
  • Third-and-4 from UGA 47: Fromm sacked for loss of 9. (Raekwon Davis pushed by Ben Cleveland for the sack, and no receiver separation downfield.)

— Alabama gets field goal to make it 20-13 –

  • First-and-10 from UGA 14: Chubb rush for loss of 1 out of the wildcat.
  • Second-and-11 from UGA 13: Hardman 9-yard run on an end around.
  • Third-and-2 from UGA 22: Michel run up middle of 1 yard, handoff from Hardman in the wildcat. (Alabama had the middle clogged after winning blocks.)

— Alabama gets touchdown to tie the game at 20 –

  • First-and-10 from UGA 21: Fromm incompletion to Riley Ridley. (D’Andre Swift in the backfield.)
  • Second-and-10 from UGA 21: Fromm 7-yard completion to Ridley on the sideline.
  • Third-and-3 from UGA 28: Fromm overthrows Swift, who was open near sideline after running out of backfield.

— After Alabama misses field goal, Georgia gets ball to start overtime.

  • First-and-10 from Alabama 25: Chubb run up middle for 3 yards. (Fromm appeared to check in to a different play.)
  • Second-and-7 from Alabama 22: Chubb toss sweep for 1 yard.
  • Third-and-6 from Alabama 21; Fromm sacked for loss of 13. (Terrell Lewis came up the middle after coming from behind the nose tackle, getting around Lamont Gaillard. It looked like Fromm would have had Michel on at least a check-down over the middle.)

There could be an acceptable explanation for each play call, something they’d seen on film, something they’d seen earlier in the game, a matchup they liked. But in a macro sense, a head coach and offensive coordinator, in this kind of momentous situation, can’t let their best player (in that game) become a bystander.

Jake Fromm

Fromm has such a presence in the pocket, especially for a freshman. There are no happy feet, and that’s a big part of the third-down conversions. Take a third-and-7 late in the second quarter, when Fromm is literally standing on his goal-line as the rush is coming at him, risking a sack and safety. But he was eyeing Ridley on a crossing pattern, and waited until just the right moment, hitting him on a 16-yard gain. Instead of having to punt from near their goal-line, they moved the ball out, four plays later Cam Nizialek flips the field with a punt — with help of a penalty — and after an Alabama three-and-out, Georgia goes down and scores before halftime.

Alabama’s comeback also causes the brilliance of Fromm’s 80-yard touchdown pass to Mecole Harrdman to be overlooked. Simply great touch, and a great play by Hardman, who outran his man and finished the play.

Another little thing with Fromm: After a third-down incompletion, when Michel was obviously frustrated with Fromm not seeing him spring open, you see Fromm jogging over to Michel to say something. No shrug or silence, waiting to talk to a coach first. The quarterback immediately went over to engage.

People talked about Togavailoa looking away the defense on the game-winning play. Fromm did that on a (less) key play: In the second quarter, before he hit Javon Wims on  16-yard third-down conversion, he looked to the center of the field before glancing to the left. Only for a momentary glance, but it prevented a safety from coming over to help.

One of the supposed keys for Georgia was to avoid third-and-long – it was one of the two keys ESPN highlighted in Georgia’s “planning for success” graphic. But Fromm was that good that Georgia, for three quarters, was great on third down.

More on Georgia’s offense

Let’s go to the bullet points:

  • This game showed why Michel could have a pretty good NFL career. He had a good game against a defense stacked with NFL players.
  • Isaiah Wynn also had a great final game at Georgia. They ran a number of runs his way, including a third-and-10 draw to Michel that resulted in a 14-yard gain. Fromm also scrambled 14 yards to the left on a play where the left side was wide open. It bears noting: Georgia’s final record with Wynn at left tackle is 19-2.
  • On Georgia’s second drive, when Javon Wims dropped a pass, D’Andre Swift was wide open on the same side. Kirk Herbstreit speculated it might have been a hook-and-ladder, and he may have been right, but Swift would have taken a screen pass for a lot of yards.
  • It was a forgotten play because it ended up being inconsequential, but Fromm’s first interception happened not just because of a great play by Alabama safety Tony Brown – who just wrestled the ball out of the air – but because of Alabama pass pressure. Fromm saw just enough pressure coming up the middle from Payne, who got by Lamont Gaillard, that Fromm appeared to take something off it. Javon Wims was past Brown.
  • As good a game as Riley Ridley had receiving the ball, he also had a good block to spring Michel’s 26-yard run in the first quarter.
  • The first sack came on a DB blitz, when Isaac Nauta was lined up at H-back but shifted right, as instructed, once the play began. Maybe somebody should’ve recognized the blitz, but maybe it was also a great call by Jeremy Pruitt.

Georgia’s defense

Kirby Smart said they had “no doubt” at halftime that Alabama would go to Tagovailoa, but the Crimson Tide did a good job of keeping it bottled up. There was no inkling of it on the broadcast until after warmups were over, and nobody in the press box knew until he trotted out there. “That’s No. 13 in there,” an Alabama media member said behind me as Alabama took the field.

Georgia did force a three-and-out on Tagovailoa’s first drive, but that was — stop me if you’ve heard this before — thanks to Rquan Smith, who burst through on third down to bring him down. Smith and Tae Crowder, the hero of the Rose Bowl on special teams, came on a dual-inside linebacker blitz.

Kirk Herbstreit pointed this out: When Jalen Hurts saw red jerseys, his instinct was to get out of the pocket. Fromm, on the other hand, was standing in there and waiting for a receiver to get open.

When Tagovailoa got in the game, he sparked the offense because he got rid of the ball quickly, allowing Alabama to call more slants and passes to the middle of the field. Those are the kinds of plays that have burned Georgia this season, and when you have to worry about a running quarterback, meaning a need to keep players on the edges for contain, that’s why a dual-threat quarterback is so dangerous.

But one more takeaway on re-watch is it wasn’t all Tagovailoa in the second half that burned Georgia. The Tide also got bigger run plays, including runs of 16 and 35 yards by Najee Harris to set up the field goal that made it 20-13. Georgia’s defense, on the field more in the second half, may have been worn down a bit more. They also might have just been playing one of the best running offenses in the country.

A few more bullet points:

  • Jonathan Ledbetter had a whale of a game. Assuming he sticks to his decision to return for his senior year, and we’ve head nothing yet to indicate he won’t, he’s going to be perhaps the key leader of the 2018 defense, on and off the field.
  • Mel Tucker and the staff made a great early-game adjustment: Jalen Hurts was killing Georgia early with his feet. He ran for 12 yards on a designed run and then converted a third-and-long with a 10-yard scramble. Georgia was playing its linebackers back on the second play, not spying Hurts. But three plays later, on another third down, Lorenzo Carter spied and rushed Hurts into an incompletion. And on the next drive, a third-and-3, Georgia seemed to anticipate a scramble and clogged the middle – though Ledbetter also just made a great play. And on a second-and-7 early in the second quarter they had the safeties crashing in, resulting in a minimal gain.
  • For as bad as the final play of the game turned out, in the first half Georgia’s coverage downfield was consistently good.
  • More Roquan Smith: In one of those little-noticed plays that make a huge difference, on Alabama’s first drive, it had first down at the Georgia 18, and Josh Jacobs had room to the outside. But Smith came up and made a 1-on-1 tackle that if he doesn’t might have gone all the way. Three plays later, Alabama misses a field goal. What might’ve been 7-0 instead is 0-0.
  • It’s not breaking any ground here to point out that Parrish had a rough final game at Georgia. There was the final play. There was the face-mask penalty on the final drive in regulation, which didn’t turn out to matter as much after the missed field goal. More important, it tunred out, was when Parrish was called for a pass interference to extend what turned out to be Alabama’s game-tying drive. It was a legitimate call, as his arms extended and he pushed DaVonta Smith going down the sideline. Parrish was right there with Smith and stood a good chance of successfully defending the ball.
  • On the other hand, Deandre Baker had another strong game, and not just the interception. After he defended Calvin Ridley on a throw into the end zone, Herbstreit said on air “that’s good against good, that’s a Todd McShay video replay right there, this is two guys that are going to be potentially first-rounders next year.” Well, Ridley declared for the draft on Wednesday. Baker is mulling it over, but if he returns, that would be huge for Georgia’s defense in 2018.

Other observations 

  • Kudos to Kirby Smart for not being afraid to stand next to the much-taller Maria Taylor.
  • Georgia long snapper Trent Frix was all the way downfield on one punt in the first half. Pretty impressive hustle and speed for a long snapper.
  • When Alabama’s Mekhi Brown punched at Georgia’s Walter Grant, drawing a 15-yard penalty in the third quarter, you see Grant turn and smile and nod his head, as if knowing that in some clever way he had done good for his team. It was right after that when Brown went ballistic on the Alabama sideline, going after an Alabama assistant.
  • Either Georgia’s blocking on kickoffs had a severe dropoff in the second half or Alabama, riding some energy, was that much better, because Georgia started at its 7 and 14 after two kickoffs.

Final thoughts

There’s a feeling around Georgia that this shouldn’t be taken as hard as 2012, because this should just be the start of a special run. And that may be.

But that was little consolation to the seniors, who have endured a coaching change and trips to lower-tier bowls. They become alumni and fans now, like the many former players (Jarvis Jones, Thomas Davis, Todd Gurley, etc.) who were on the sideline on Monday night. They will try to live vicariously through Kirby Smart’s next few teams, the way Aaron Murray, Arthur Lynch and Alec Ogletree lived vicariously through this year’s team.

But there’s nothing like being the one on the field with your uniform on. That’s what makes this sting so badly for Chubb, Michel, Carter, Bellamy and many others.

Bellamy said he was speaking the other day with Leonard Floyd, his former teammate and fellow outside linebacker.

“That guy went No. 9 overall, who has $15 million in the bank. He would give it all just to play in the final four,” Bellamy said. “So it was definitely worth it.”

Bellamy sighed.

“But, you know,” he said, “Life goes on.”

NextReport: Georgia assistant strength and conditioning coach Aaron Feld …
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