The strategic decisions of Kirby Smart and the rest of Georgia’s coaching staff in last Saturday’s 20-17 double-overtime loss to South Carolina left plenty of room for speculation.
Most notably, Smart passed on a 60-yard field goal attempt at the end of regulation, instead opting for a Hail Mary attempt that failed. There were also questions about the offensive play-calling as a whole and the management of the final two minutes of the first half, during which Georgia threw a pick-six and had a field goal blocked.
At his weekly press conference on Monday, Smart fielded several questions pertaining to coaching strategy. Each time, he stood up for the decisions of the staff.
Smart was defensive coordinator at Alabama for the infamous “Kick Six” play at Auburn in 2013, and he was asked if that had any influence on the choice to forego a long field goal by Rodrigo Blankenship to try and win the game before overtime.
He said that play had no effect on his decision, although he spoke more about the call to run one more play from the 38-yard line with eight seconds left than the Hail Mary choice with three seconds left.
“No coach in his right mind with eight seconds thinks he can’t get another play off,” Smart said. “We do it every single Thursday, every single Friday. We script it. We’ve done it with seven seconds. We’ve actually done it with six ever since the Florida halftime deal where we had a chance to get another play in.”
The “Florida halftime deal” refers to last year’s game with the Gators where the Bulldogs kicked a field goal from the Florida 5-yard line with six seconds remaining in the half.
A similar situation reared its head near the end of regulation and didn’t work out. However, a big factor in the failure was an illegal shift penalty that turned what would have been a 55-yard field goal into a 60-yarder.
Smart also was asked about the offense’s perceived improvement in production while working at a faster tempo. He said the Bulldogs tried to go to that several times against the Gamecocks, but added that defenses change their strategy when confronted with that challenge, making things tougher on an offense.
That offensive style is most prevalent in the closing minutes of the half, an area the Bulldogs emphasize often but failed in against South Carolina.
The first Georgia drive late in the first half began with 3:00 left at the Bulldog 25-yard line. After three plays, the offense had advanced 16 yards and used half the time allotted. Two plays later, Fromm’s pick-six put Carolina on top 17-10.
Upon getting the ball back with 1:00 to go, the Bulldogs drove 41 yards in eight plays before a 53-yard field goal by Blankenship was blocked as the half expired.
“We didn’t win two-minute before the half twice, and then we didn’t win two-minute at the end of the game,” Smart said. “That’s one of our big goals is to win two-minute. Every game up until that it seemed like, we had either won defensively before the half or we’d won offensively, and we didn’t do that.”
Two drives, only one scoring opportunity on a very long field goal try that may or may not have gone in. Needless to say, Smart felt that was one of the biggest disappointments of the game.
While he preached Monday that the team’s focus was on Kentucky, there’s room for reflection and self-analysis. Smart said they receive feedback from an analytics team every week that helps with decision making.
As for the coaches themselves, one of their biggest responsibilities is deciding when to call timeouts. Smart said decisions have to be made philosophically whether or not to call timeouts following first downs in many cases. When Smart was at Alabama, the mindset was often to run a play quickly rather than call timeout.
That’s just one of the countless decisions a coach to make over the course of a game. When it works, he’s a genius. When it doesn’t, fans get to grumble and play armchair quarterback.
Smart isn’t a perfect manager or strategist, nor is any other coach in the country. But if the Bulldogs want to reach their ultimate goal of a national title this season, the margin for strategic error just got a whole lot smaller.