The best game of the season — and one of the best conference championship games I’ve ever seen — came down to one final bizarre play: Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray scrambled his team to the line at the eight yard line, dropped back, and threw a fade route to receiver Malcolm Mitchell. The ball, however, was tipped at the line by Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosley, and it fluttered and landed in the hands of Chris Conley a few yards short of the end zone. Conley instinctively caught the ball, was tackled, and the game clock expired.
Obviously, that’s not how Georgia drew it up. And, immediately, led by Gary Danielson, the chorus began: Georgia should have spiked the ball instead of running a play. But I’m not so sure. I think spiking it would have been fine and maybe even advisable, but what I don’t think a spike would have been is necessarily outcome determinative. Richt and his staff had a reason for not spiking the ball, and having the ball tipped and then caught by some other receiver very easily could have happened after a spike as well. Per Blutarsky:
To Spike or Not to Spike. That is the question. Actually, I’m not sure why spiking is such a slam dunk decision in minds of many people today. If you read Weiszer’s post on the play, you get a valid rationale for what they called…
“We were moving the ball effectively. By the time we got down to the red zone we didn’t really want to spike the ball. We wanted to keep the personnel they had in the game. We decided to hurry up and get to the line and get another play off. There was a little bit of confusion.”
… and you get an explanation for why it didn’t work out.
Mark Richt on spiking the ball: “Well, spiking the ball takes time. We had plenty of time to call play, so we called the play and we were taking ‑‑ the goal was to take a shot at their back right end of the end zone and the ball got batted, the ball got tipped and it landed to a receiver that was running a speed out.”
And more: “We had the play we wanted. We had a good play. The ball got tipped at the line of scrimmage and it fell in the arms of a guy in play. The ball was going to the back end of the end zone, either a catch or out of the end zone. Because if you have, I don’t know how many seconds there were, 15 or whatever it was, if you spike the ball, you might only have two plays after that. If you throw the ball in the end zone, you probably get three plays out of it. So once you spike it, it does take a little time to spike it, and you reduce the chance of having the third play, basically. So the goal was to throw it in the end zone. That’s what Murray was attempting to do. Once again, the ball got batted, and landed in the arms of our guy in play.”
Plus, they thought they had what they wanted.
[Aaron Murray]: “We thought we would have time for two more plays. Obviously they were running down the field. They wouldn’t get set up real quick. I actually think I had Malcolm (Mitchell) on the fade. When I threw it, he said he had him. I thought he beat him too. If it was an incomplete pass we still would have had one more play to go.
Now, a spike may well have been advisable in these circumstances. Normally a spike is not worth it because you waste a down when time is more valuable. With only approximately fifteen or sixteen seconds, however, it’s unlikely you get all the way to fourth down, so the spike may have been fine or even the better approach. But it’s not a no brainer.
As explained in The Essential Smart Football, a lot of my thinking on spiking the ball was influenced by the great Homer Smith. I would have loved to know what the late Homer Smith would say about Richt’s decision not to spike against Alabama. But one of Coach Smith’s best points about the spike is one Richt mentions above: the spike play itself takes time, so people fantasizing about spiking and running three plays are being fantastical. As Smith explained: “Even when there is not time to use all four downs and even if you can snap the ball for a regular play as fast as you can snap it for the spike, [the spike] consumes a second that might have otherwise allowed you an additional play.” Richt’s thought was that the best shot at getting three end zone plays was not to spike. And without the ball being instinctively caught, there would have still been five-to-seven seconds left; enough for one, maybe two plays.
Again, it’s not that not spiking was absolutely correct, but the anger is better directed elsewhere, and the decision not to spike is totally defensible.
Ultimately to me it was a great play by Mosley, and an unfortunate fluke play for Georgia. One of the ironic things is that, with notable exceptions, Richt has been one of the better clock managers over the years. Much of that is because, after his first season at Georgia when his Bulldogs lost a variety of close games, he met with Homer Smith specifically to improve his clock management skills:
Richt met with Homer Smith, a longtime offensive coordinator at schools like Alabama and Arizona, over the summer and got some calming advice.
“The first thing he said is, ‘You’ll never master clock management,” Richt said.
“Not many coaches are ever going to say, ‘I’m the guru of clock management.’”
It’s unfortunate that such a great game ended on that sort of play. I give Richt credit for sticking with his strategy and then lucidly explaining it after the game. The bottom line is these decisions are extremely difficult, and his strategy was defensible. And if you’d like to know why Alabama won and Georgia lost, I can think of a number of other more significant issues, including another thorny strategic question: Nick Saban’s decision to go for two in the third quarter. Now that was an interesting decision.