1. Georgia coach Mark Richt did not veil his regret for deciding to squib the Bulldogs’ final kickoff against Georgia Tech this past Saturday. That decision, made with Georgia leading by three with 18 seconds to play, ultimately allowed the Yellow Jackets to get into position for one last scoring try.
Place-kicker Harrison Butker converted a 53-yard field goal with no time remaining, and that sent the game into overtime, where Tech won 30-24.
While critics – Richt chief among them – have lambasted the decision to go with the squib there, it’s actually the recommended play in coaching circles. From a strategy standpoint, the thinking is it’s the best ploy to ensure not getting beat by a big kickoff return, either for a touchdown or into field-goal range.
According to an American Football Coaches Association post on kickoff strategies, “The squib kick is a tactic used to prevent a long return, usually at the end of the half. On average, the receiving team will gain better field position than it would on a normal kick return. However, it is considered worthwhile by the kicking team as it is more difficult to return for a touchdown. Also it must be returned, which isn’t the case on a touchback. Thus, it takes time off the clock and often brings the half to an end.”
It should be noted that Tech’s Jamal Golden is one of the best return men in the ACC and ranked 21st in the nation with an average of 25.2 yards per kickoff. So in Richt’s mind, he was trying to prevent the possibility of losing the game on that play. He went by the book.
“If you squib it, it’s hard to get a touchdown on the kick,” Richt said. “But your squib does tend to end up giving them more field position. That’s the difference. … But we’d been covering kicks pretty good and Marshall (Morgan) does a good job of kicking the ball up there and giving our guys the chance to make tackles. And we did all day.”
2. A retired Hall of Fame coach who spoke on the condition of anonymity – these guys don’t like to criticize each other – said he thought it was the right strategy, just poor execution.
Morgan’s bounding, line-drive kick was fielded cleanly by Tech linebacker Anthony Harrell. Kicking it directly to a player was the first breakdown. Then Harrell managed to return the ball 16 yards to the Jackets’ 43-yard line. That’s the second breakdown. The returner must be limited to little or no yardage on a squib.
“It was just a bummer,” Morgan said after the game. “They returned it a little farther than we’d hoped. I don’t know how many yards they ended up getting for a long field goal, but Harrison hit a good kick.”
Former Atlanta Falcons receiver Brian Finneran, who now does sports radio for 680 The Fan, said he spoke to Falcons special teams coordinator Keith Armstrong about the squib strategy. Armstrong told him their rule of thumb is not to employ the squib unless there are 14 or fewer seconds remaining. Eighteen seconds were left on Saturday. Most coaching texts are less specific.
3. The next failing in the end-of-game scenario was Tech quarterback Justin Thomas running for 21 yards and getting out of bounds on the Jackets’ final play from scrimmage. The Bulldogs were in a three-deep/prevent coverage and Leonard Floyd, the athletic outside linebacker, was positioned in the middle of the field as a “spy” on the elusive Thomas.
The Yellow Jackets snapped the ball with 13 seconds remaining in regulation. Thomas was pressured but escaped containment. After he crossed the line of scrimmage, Floyd had an opportunity to bring him down inside the boundaries but couldn’t corral him. Letting him get to the sideline was the third critical breakdown.
4. Another strategy brought up by a fellow coach would have been to employ the “pooch,” or “sky kick” technique. Less time is expended off the clock, but generally the receiving team should end up with more real estate to recover.
Tech utilized that strategy on its final kickoff of regulation with 4:22 to play. Neither Quayon Hicks nor Jay Rome, the up-backs in the Bulldogs’ return formation, attempted to catch the kick right around the 30-yard line, as expected. However, Lawrence Austin recovered the live ball for the Yellow Jackets.
Richt said he discussed all possibilities with co-special teams coordinator Mike Ekeler. But Richt said the call to squib was ultimately his.
“Obviously, hindsight is helpful but I should’ve just let them kick it deep and go cover the thing,” he said.
5. In any case, Georgia players defended their coaches’ decisions
“Coach dialed up the squib kick and that’s the decision he went with and we went with it,” senior receiver Jonathon Rumph told reporters after the game. “We accepted it and that’s part of the game. You can’t say that was a bad decision because you never know what could have happened. Georgia Tech made a great kick and it went into overtime. … We should have executed better.”