It wasn’t necessarily the play that lost Georgia the 2018 SEC Championship Game. But it’s the play everyone will remember.
On 4th and 11 from the Bulldog 48 yard line Justin Fields entered the game as an upback on the punt team. The play was designed for Fields to take a quick snap and toss the ball to D’Andre Swift positioned as the right gunner. Coach Smart remarked after the game that Alabama had generally left this player uncovered on its punt safe return all season and the coaches felt it was exploitable.
The biggest problem with the play was that Fields was the one running it. It’s not that the freshman quarterback isn’t talented, it’s that he sticks out like a sore thumb. One can only imagine that the Alabama coaches drilled for weeks leading into this game for their players to know where Fields is on the field at all times. He has not worked on the punt team all year. It’s hard to imagine a look that would elicit more warning bells than this one. Honestly, the play might actually work if Isaac Nauta is the one taking the snap.
Once the Fields warning bells started going off, Kirby Smart and the Georgia coaching staff did abort the operation. If you look back you can see that Alabama players clearly knew where Fields was and that his presence meant something was up. Seeing this the right move for the Bulldog coaching staff would have been to call a time out and kick the ball deep, forcing the Tide offense to go 80+ yards.
Despite all this the play still might have worked if the ball was snapped before Alabama was able to suss out precisely what was going on. This did not happen, and the delay in the snap allowed Alabama to settle into its base defense, account for all receivers and ball carriers, and stuff Fields for a 2 yard game. Jalen Hurts them lead the Tide offense down a short field for the game winning touchdown. And here we are.
Was it the wrong call? I think so. While Hurts had given the Tide offense a little bit of a spark, The Bulldog front seven was playing well. Sure, some fatigue was evident but there’s no doubt they could have gotten to start there. I think with a new quarterback in you give more chances for the Tide to make a mistake, a botched snap or Hurts’ first interception of the game to follow Tua’s two.
Do I understand and respect what Kirby Smart was doing? Absolutely. If Georgia is ever going to surmount Alabama it’s not going to do so by playing scared. It’s not going to do so by playing not to lose, it’s going to have to rip the barn door off and charge through. I’m fairly certain that’s what Kirby Smart has preached to his team in the lead up to this game and it’s what he intended to practice in that critical moment.
If it worked it would have been the kind of play Alabama fans buy cheesy prints of. “The Fake” would have become a hallmark of program history. While I didn’t like the execution, I like the attitude from which it sprung. It’s a learning moment for this program and staff. But it doesn’t shake my belief in what Smart and his staff are trying to do. Until later...