If a good decision yields a bad result, can it have been a good decision? Mike Bobo, Georgia’s offensive coordinator, made what seemed a terrible choice — terrible in hindsight, we emphasize — by opting not to let Todd Gurley, the nation’s best tailback, run on first-and-goal from the South Carolina 4 with the Bulldogs trailing by a field goal. (Perhaps you’ve heard a bit about this.)
Georgia’s failure to score on that series — Marshall Morgan pushed what would have been the tying field goal wide right — has led to much criticism, some of it from this sector. Criticism of Bobo for calling the play that wasn’t a Gurley run. Criticism of Mark Richt for not ordering Bobo to run the darn ball. Criticism of the Bulldogs as an entity for being too stupid to see what everybody else could see.
But wait. Play-action — meaning a fake handoff that becomes a pass — is among the most effective weapons in football, especially on the goal line. A backed-up defense surging to stop the run cannot easily backpedal into coverage. Faking the ball to a back and throwing it instead to a tight end who, for half a second, has pretended to block is so elementary that it can be found in Chapter 1, Section 1 of the offensive coordinator’s handbook of how to attack a stacked defense.
(An example can also be found in the canon of Great Bulldog Moments under “Hobnail Boot”: P-44-Haynes — the winning touchdown pass from David Greene to Verron Haynes against Tennessee in 2001 — was a play-action pass from the 6, albeit with five seconds remaining. The play call was Richt’s.)
Earlier in the fourth quarter, Hutson Mason had faked a handoff to Gurley and thrown to tight end Jay Rome for a touchdown. That had come after the Bulldogs had handed the ball to Gurley on first-and-goal from the 2 in the third quarter (he scored), and also after Bobo had called three consecutive runs — two to fullback Quayvon Hicks, one to sub tailback Sony Michel — with first-and-goal from the 6 inside the final eight minutes (Hicks scored on third down).
Meaning: Bobo had mixed his goal-line plays nicely. He’d ordered tailback runs, fullback runs and a play-action pass and banked three touchdowns. With 5:24 to play and the game on the line, South Carolina figured to be guessing that Bobo would return to Option No. 1 — Gurley up the middle. Bobo chose Option No. 2. Mason faked to Gurley and rolled right. The bootleg action should have added an even greater amount of safety. The play was either going to work or, if it didn’t, result in nothing worse than second-and-goal from the 4.
The Gamecocks, however, reacted expertly. (Sometimes you have to credit the other team.) No receiver popped open. Defensive end Gerald Dixon crashed into the backfield to pressure Mason, who sought to avoid a sack by throwing the ball away. In contemporary football, it’s hard for a quarterback to be called for intentional grounding. Mason was.
(Having viewed the tape, Richt said on his Sunday teleconference that the Bulldogs would send a copy of the play to SEC officiating chief Steve Shaw. Georgia coaches believe a defender touched Mason’s pass — which wouldn’t necessarily have negated the intentional grounding the way a tipped ball negates pass interference — but could have affected the ball’s flight. What looked like a blatant throwaway mightn’t have been so blatant. What looked like intentional grounding might not, at least in Georgia’s view, actually been.)
Play-action on the goal line is, 95 times in 100, a safe call. Either it’s a touchdown or the quarterback throws it out of the end zone. Being called for intentional grounding was close to a worst-case scenario. (Only an interception or a sack-and-fumble would have been worse.) It lost 10 yards and a down. Even a holding penalty, which carries no loss of down, would have preferable to that. So now Georgia had second-and-goal from the 14, and now Bobo ordered the run to Gurley.
That was, to me if no one else, a much worse call than a bootleg on first down. Even the great Gurley isn’t apt to score from 14 yards out on second-and-goal. He got three yards. On third-and-goal from the 11, Georgia had no choice but to pass. I’m not sure who the target was — it appeared Mason was forced to look for a secondary receiver — but he wound up throwing short over the middle toward Gurley and the ball was batted down. (Yes, another batted Georgia pass in a goal-line setting. Shades of Alabama in the Dome.)
Criticisms of Georgia’s tactics have taken several offshoots, this chief among them: You have to put the ball in your best player’s hands with the game on line. Or this: You can’t let the game come down to a quarterback making his first SEC start when you have Gurley in the backfield. I understand that reasoning, but I also recall Bobo chastising himself after the 17-6 loss at South Carolina in 2010 because he’d called a vanilla game in the attempt to lighten the load on Aaron Murray, a redshirt freshman making his first SEC start. Georgia have faith in Georgia quarterbacks, and it wasn’t as if Mason had been throwing the ball to the Gamecocks. The Bulldogs made no turnovers on the night.
Another criticism: Bobo overthought where the obvious would have sufficed. But wait again: If letting Gurley run it was such an obvious call, wouldn’t it have been obvious to South Carolina, too? If so, wasn’t the choice to fake the ball to Gurley the wiser course? Case in point: The Bulldogs’ first series. South Carolina was arrayed to stop Gurley, so Georgia threw two passes — and scored a touchdown.
In the grand scheme, it matters not what Bulldog scores so long as Georgia scores. That’s where the defense of Bobo/Richt/Georgia unravels: Their team didn’t score a touchdown, didn’t score a point. Their team lost a game it might have won had it only handed the ball to its best player. In the overheated aftermath of a frantic finish, my first thought was that the Bulldogs had indeed tried to run around their backhand, as they say in tennis, and made things way too tricky. In the colder light of a Monday morning, I’m not sure they did.
Richt has since conceded, “If I had it to do again, I’d have hammered it.” But that admission came after the play-action fake had yielded an almost unthinkable grounding penalty; the dumbest human alive wouldn’t run the same play knowing that would be the outcome. Bobo could have had no reasonable expectation that such a call would have produced such a yield. He expected this to work, same as the earlier play-action fake had generated the Rome touchdown.
Coaching college football is a results-oriented business. If you don’t win, you lose. Georgia didn’t score and lost. Since the play didn’t work, we can’t say it was a good play. But I ask again: Does that make it a bad call?
Oh, and one thing more: For all of you who’ve said, “Nick Saban would never throw the ball down there.” Actually, Saban’s team did — in a loss to Texas A&M in November 2012. With first-and-goal at the 6 in the final four minutes and Alabama trailing 29-24, AJ McCarron dropped to pass three times. The first two times he had to scramble; on fourth down he threw an interception. Only once did Bama hand the ball to Eddie Lacy; he gained one yard on second down. Alabama governor Robert Bentley would later say, “I’d have run the ball four straight times.”