The Quickest Way to Lose

ATHENS - Frank Beamer talked with us for little while last Friday. Seeing him and knowing what special teams meant to his success got me thinking a little about the last two years in Athens.

There’s always been a segment of UGA fans who have figured out how to complain about anything and everything - lest we forget the Fire Bobo crowd. But that group was certainly correct in complaining about special teams at Georgia.

A case could be made that more than anything - including puzzling quarterback management in 2015 - special teams got Mark Richt fired. 

At the start of the Richt Era, UGA ruled the field on special teams. Blocked punts and kicks seemed common. But over time players left and some of the rules were changed for safety’s sake. Eventually UGA wasn’t so great at special teams any more. Actually, they got pretty bad - even with future NFL specialists like Blair Walsh and Drew Butler, UGA just couldn't get it right. 

“Ten years ago I think you could out-coach people,” Beamer told reporters. “I don’t think you can do that any more. Now the key is to get the best players on special teams.”

Richt and company didn’t do that, or at least it didn’t seem like they did. Meanwhile Urban Meyer won two national titles on the strength of special teams (at least we were led to believe that; his kickers were usually garbage). But no matter how good Meyer was at special teams or not, the fact is that they are probably more consequential than the average fan, and perhaps many coaches, think. Two of the last three national titles have been decided as a result of one or more special teams plays - all of them coming in the fourth quarter no less (2013 Florida State-Auburn; 2015 Clemson-Alabama). 

Auburn would not have appeared in the 2013 national title game without a miracle special teams play against the Tide. But the Tigers lost 34-31 after Levonte Whitfield’s 4th quarter 100-yard kickoff return for a TD. Alabama wouldn’t have won it all in 2015 had they not stunned the No. 1 Tigers with two special teams plays in the fourth quarter - an onside kick to steal a possession and eventually take a 7-point lead, and a 95-yard kickoff return that pushed out the Tide’s lead to 11 points with only seven minutes to play. Clemson never recovered, and got the game to within five by scoring a junk TD with seconds remaining in the contest.

Back to the Dawgs... UGA’s 2015 season was defined by special teams malfunctions. In two of the Dawgs’ three losses they suffered catastrophic mistakes on special teams - Reggie Davis’ painful punt muff inside the five-yard line, and Alabama’s punt block to go up 17-3. Both plays pretty well ended those games. 

And then there was UGA’s bizarre 2015 showdown at Tennessee. The Dawgs scored on 96-yard fumble recovery and on a 70-yard punt return - AND LOST (Thanks for showing up UGA offense.) That game was the outlier of all outliers, and the result could be taken one of two ways… it was a total statistical outlier and won’t ever happen again (scoring a special teams TD and a defensive TD and losing), or that the Vols weren’t just a touchdown better than Georgia, but more like three touchdowns better. 

Looking back on what Beamer said - he knows what every coach knows, but he was a pioneer in it: special teams have to have a special emphasis because all too often when teams are equal - or at least the better team is not an obvious thing - the team that plays special teams better will win, and you have to tell and show your team that special teams matter. 

“It is the quickest way to win or lose a game,” Beamer said. 

Lately its been UGA’s quickest way to lose a game. 

Again, and this is probably the statistic that ended up getting Mark Richt fired - UGA lost six games in the last two years. In three of those the opposition scored a special teams touchdown; not a big special teams play… a touchdown

That leaves out, too, the Yellow Jackets’ 53-yard field goal at the end of the 2014 regular season. That special teams play was helped out considerably by pure mismanagement down the stretch: Not only Richt’s decision to call a timeout with the play clock running out on the Jackets, but also his controversial decision to squib kick the ball in the first place.

“I know that Kirby understands the value of the kicking game,” Beamer said.

UGA fans sure hope to hell that he does. 


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