ATHENS — The normally stoic Mark Richt was very animated several times during Saturday’s game against Vanderbilt. At no time was that more evident than late in the fourth quarter when the Commodores executed a 48-yard onsides kick.
Including a personal foul tack-on, that gave Vandy the ball at the Georgia 8 trailing by 10 with 4:30 remaining in the game.
Asked what his thoughts were as the play unfolded before him, Richt confessed: “Well, I didn’t say anything out loud. But if anyone could record my thoughts, my pastor wouldn’t have been happy.”
It was yet another horrific special teams breakdown in a place where the Bulldogs have committed a lot of them in recent years. Add it to the fake field-goal touchdown, fake punt, muffed punt return and mishandled punt snap Georgia has recorded at Vanderbilt Stadium in recent years.
The fact is, the Bulldogs appeared extremely vulnerable to what befell them on that particular play. After Johnny McCrary’s touchdown pass and two-point conversion run brought Vandy to within 24-14, the Commodores were in an obvious onsides kick situation. So Georgia predictably brought in its “hands team,” which featured several receivers and other sure-handed types who crowded the line 10 yards from the ball on the kickoff.
The trouble was, the only player behind them was single-safety in the form of kick returner Reggie Davis, and he was positioned all the way back to the goal line. In between him and the Bulldogs’ frontline was a massive expanse of green space.
It was there in the middle on the right hash marks that Hayden Lekacz perfectly placed his bloop kick. It hit the ground about the 25-yard line and, as Davis charged hard to field it, eluded his grasp when it bounded hard left on the first bounce. Vandy’s Oren Burks dove on top of it at the 17. The Commodores took over at the 8 after a referee was unintentionally knocked down by Georgia personnel crowding the sideline.
Davis, speaking after Monday’s practice, put the blame on himself.
“I take full responsibility for that one. I took a bad step and I kind of got to the ball late,” Davis said, adding with a smile: “And that bounce didn’t really help me out.”
But that runs contrary to what coaches said about who was responsible, as Davis acknowledged.
“The coaches they say it’s their fault, they didn’t coach it. But I still take full responsibility for it because at the end of the day I’m the one on the field playing,” Davis said. “They can only put me in the right position, but I messed up on it.”
Whoever was at fault, the Bulldogs were bailed out when, two plays later, linebacker Jake Ganus picked off a McCrary pass in the end zone for a touchback.
“Absolutely, it could have cost us,” Richt said. “We’ve got to make sure we’re doing the right thing, first of all, and then make sure we can execute it.”
Richt said that the Bulldogs were in the alignment that they wanted. The real breakdown came with the players on the front line who were assigned to block Vanderbilt defenders. Clearly that assignment was not carried out as Burks was one of at least four Vandy defenders near the loose ball.
Richt said the coaching staff discussed their hands-team strategy on the plane ride home and at a special-teams meeting Sunday night. And Richt vowed to personally review what “everybody else in the country does in that situation and find out if there’s a better way.”
However, he said, the bottom line is, “if everybody does what they’re supposed to do, there would’ve been a lot more time and opportunity for him to get on it safely without that much drama.”
That play served as the lowlight in a very up-and-down day of special teams for the Bulldogs. Sophomore Isaiah McKenzie came back from a hamstring injury to return a punt 77 yards for a touchdown and Collin Barber averaged 40.5 yards on six punts. But Marshall Morgan missed two field goals (from 37 and 43 yards), dropping him to 1-for-3 for the season.
Suffice it to say, there will be much to review in practice before Saturday’s game against South Carolina.
“Enough good things happened that I felt like we should have won the game, and enough bad ones where we certainly could have lost it,” Richt said. “To get out of a game like this with a victory and still be able to learn from it is going to be very valuable to us. That will be our goal.”