Consistency eludes special teams units

ATHENS — It was the penalty on A.J. Green preceding Georgia’s final kickoff that has drawn the most controversy, but it was the coverage that followed that ended up defining the game for the Bulldogs.

Georgia had just scored to take a 13-12 lead with 1:09 to play Saturday, but the ensuing kickoff sapped virtually all the drama out of the game. LSU’s Trindon Holliday fielded a short kickoff, returned it 40 yards, and an illegal formation penalty on Georgia tacked on 5 more yards to set the Tigers up for a game-winning drive that began in field-goal range and ended with a touchdown.

“We got punctured right in the heart of our kickoff coverage team,” head coach Mark Richt said of Holliday’s final return. “Their wedge did a very nice job, and everybody knows Holliday is a special cat.”

While the coverage on Georgia’s final kickoff changed the complexion of the game in an instant, the Bulldogs have ridden a roller coaster of ups and downs on special teams all season.

The Bulldogs have fumbled two kick returns and fallen victim to a fake punt.

Georgia also has several big kick returns, including a 100-yard touchdown run by Brandon Boykin.

Blair Walsh entered the game against LSU a perfect 8-for-8 on field goals, but he missed a 37-yarder — a chip shot by his normal standards — that altered how the remainder of the game unfolded.

Georgia has blocked an extra point and a field goal that each helped to preserve wins, but Walsh and the kickoff coverage teams have continued to struggle for the second straight season.

The punt return unit, which ranked among the best in the nation last season, didn’t pick up a single yard against LSU.

“We’ve got a lot to learn, and that comes with a lot of young guys on the team,” said sophomore Nick Williams, a regular contributor on several of Georgia’s special teams. “But the more kickoffs we cover, the more games we play, the more we’ll learn.”

The lessons, however, weren’t learned soon enough.

The final kick return by Holliday proved to be the difference between winning and losing, and it was flawed from the start.

First was the penalty for excessive celebration following Green’s go-ahead touchdown grab, which forced the Bulldogs to kick off from the 15-yard line.

Richt had chosen at the beginning of the game to take the wind in the first and third quarters, meaning that Walsh’s kickoff late in the fourth quarter came with the wind in his face.

“If you really study the game, you’ll notice the team that had the wind to the back kicked it farther and covered better,” Richt said. “The team that had the wind in their face had more issues.”

Georgia chose to kick coming out of the huddle, with the coverage team converging on the line of scrimmage just as Walsh sent the kick sailing into the air rather than lining up as it normally would.

Williams said the message from coaches prior to the kick was no different than usual, but the decision to kick from the huddle was never questioned.

The result was an overload to one side of Walsh, with just three players on the other side of the field. Holliday exposed the weakness on his return, but the formation also drew a flag from the refs.

“We know the rules, but guys sometimes don’t get a call or something and just lined up wrong,” Williams said. “It still doesn’t change the fact that he had a great return.”

Two plays later, Charles Scott took a handoff and darted 33 yards down the field for the winning score, but much of the energy in Sanford Stadium had been erased the minute LSU took its first snap within range for a long field goal.

In a season in which special teams have been the difference in three Georgia wins, Williams said the problems clearly are not widespread. But the details remain inconsistent, and that’s the problem that must be addressed going forward.

“Everybody on the kickoff team runs down there hard and gives great effort, so you have to give LSU some credit, too,” Williams said. “It’s just miscommunication. We play hard, but we’ve got to get in the film room, see what we did wrong, and do what we’ve got to do to fix it.”

EXTRA POINTS: Richt said he reviewed the game film from Saturday and was impressed by the work of freshman tailback Washaun Ealey but said he was not ready to make a change to Georgia’s depth chart at the position yet. ... Georgia’s game Saturday against Tennessee is set for noon and will air on the SEC Network. ... Georgia dropped from The Associated Press top 25 for the first time since 2006.

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