ATLANTA – Kirby Smart said he called for a fake punt on fourth-and-11 at midfield because he “wasn’t coming here to play to tie.”
Nobody bothered to tell the Georgia coach at that moment that games aren’t settled in ties anymore.
As it was, Smart’s decision to try to win the game in that moment, in fact, ensured that the Bulldogs would lose it. And that’s what they did, 35-28 to No. 1 Alabama.
Asked how that made him feel, Smart said, “sick.”
“We’ve got to play better in the fourth quarter,” he added.
Yes, and that needs to start with the head coach, who is now 0-for-3 on fake kicks this season.
He called for a field goal – coincidentally on fourth-and-11 as well – in Georgia’s only other loss of the year at LSU. Kicker Rodrigo Blankenship was slammed for a two-yard loss trying to run the ball on that one.
Against Auburn last month, Smart called for a fake field goal in the final minutes of a game Georgia led 27-3 at the time. Blankenship overthrew tight end Isaac Nuata that time.
This one was worse than both of those because of the time, score and situation, not to mention the magnitude of the game. In a word, it was stupid.
When Georgia lined up in a punt formation on fourth-and-11 at the 50, backup freshman quarterback Justin Fields went into the game and lined up at the up-back position, designed to protect the punter and provide the snap cadence. It should be pointed out here that Fields does not normally play that position for the Bulldogs. Hence, Alabama recognized his presence immediately.
The play was designed for Fields to throw the ball to an uncovered D’Andre Swift, who is a gunner on the punt team. But in this case, Swift was covered. Seeing this, Fields panicked and tried instead to run with the ball when the short snap came to him. He started first to the left, then went right before he was stopped by linebacker Anfernee Jennings for a two-yard gain.
Alabama took over on downs at its own 48 and scored the game-winning touchdown exactly one minute later. It took five plays.
“I wanted to be aggressive,” Smart said defiantly. “Look, I wasn’t coming here to play to tie, to play to keep it close. We came here to win the game. We wanted to win the game. These kids deserve to win the game, and we weren’t able to do it.”
Georgia’s players defended their coach’s decision by matching his bravado and echoing, “We’re trying to win the game.”
That’s what Fields said, too.
“It was a big moment, but I knew what Coach came here to do,” Fields said. “I knew he came here to win the game. So I was 100 percent behind him.
But punting the ball, backing up the opponent, playing defense and trying to get the ball back, is also “trying to win the game.”
The Bulldogs came close to downing the ball inside the Alabama 5 two other times. But even if they failed to do it there, the Crimson Tide still would’ve had to go at least 80 yards for the game-winning score.
Granted, Alabama’s offense had been reignited under Hurts, who had already led it to one scoring drive. But he’s not the type of quarterback who throws the ball deep and reels off yardage in great chunks. And if the Bulldogs’ defense could’ve somehow forced them to punt, they could’ve had the opportunity to possibly win in regulation, or at least try to in overtime.
Smart panicked, and his postgame comments only validate that.
“We [had] lost some momentum in the game,” he said. “Certainly, maybe we could have stopped them.”
Then he tried to justify the call again.
“I felt like that was a great call because it was there,” he said. “We’ve seen their [punt] safe. We know exactly what their [punt] safe is. They line up, and they don’t cover a guy. We’ve got a guy wide open, and he’s not going to be covered. But in the last second they saw it. And we had a way to check out of it, but we took too long to get it snapped, and I felt like it was a really good play. It was there. It got taken away at the last second, and we didn’t make the play.”
It sounds like the Bulldogs repped the fake punt all week, and they were determined to use it.
Said Fields: “We went over the look this week countless times. The look was there but, it’s just when the ball is hiked he went right to the guy. We couldn’t do anything about it.”
Here’s what they could have done about it: Not call it. Football is a sophisticated game these days and teams score more points and do it faster than ever before. But it still comes down to poise, intelligence and playing the percentages. That means sometimes punting for field position and asking your defense to go out and stop the other guys.
Georgia had done that plenty of times Saturday. Alabama was forced to punt five times. The Bulldogs punted six times, but it should have at least once more. Maybe then we’d be writing tonight about a Georgia win for the ages instead of one of the great chokes of all time.
Remember, I was the guy who picked the Bulldogs to win Saturday. They should have.