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Let's take a trip to November of 2001. Richt and his Georgia team were knocking on the door against the Auburn Tigers, trailing 24-17 but having the ball at the goal line in the final 30 seconds… without timeouts. Richt chose to run the ball into the line, and when Jasper Sanks was stopped by Auburn, UGA couldn't run another play. The criticism and scrutiny were withering, intense and --- at least in terms of clock management --- justified. Richt knew he had to be better in crunch time for his team to reach the next level. And since a coach can't ask his players to sacrifice when he's not working to get better in his own right, Richt simply upped the ante in Athens… for everyone around him, but especially and primarily for himself.
Look at what has happened four years later: Georgia --- assuming the Pups don't choke on a very big bone against Kentucky this Saturday --- will make its third trip to Atlanta in the past four seasons since Richt's game management nightmare against Auburn. That damaging, scarring loss was going to be a turning point one way or the other, and Richt did his best to ensure that it became a positive moment, not a negative one. Georgia isn't dominant this season, and the Gators still know how to beat Richt into the ground when the Cocktail Party is staged, but the fact of the matter is that Georgia is making a habit out of playing in the Georgia Dome in early December. It stinks, it angers, it irritates, but it is what it is. And it began when Mark Richt turned a personal nightmare into a football awakening for himself and his program.
So the news is good for Urban Meyer: these kinds of turnarounds can be achieved.
But now, Meyer has to go about the work of getting better and smarter in late-game situations. Without belaboring or repeating the most obvious points from this past Saturday's game, let's try to examine the final nine hellacious minutes of game and clock management against South Carolina --- we can do so because it's an off week:
First of all, one doesn't necessarily need to demand that the Gators throw the ball 20-25 yards downfield when trailing by two scores in the fourth quarter. Nor does one even have to demand that a no-huddle offense be conducted --- merely getting urgency in the huddle would be a good start. But the one thing that any college offense simply MUST do when down by 11 points with nine minutes remaining is this: throw the ball past the first-down marker to stop the clock on a completion. If you get first-down completions, talk about the no-huddle becomes diminished.
See, the reason why that late field-goal drive took so long is that Chris Leak ---when faced with a second and long or third and long situation --- couldn't push the ball downfield to the sticks. With the Gators getting small bits of yardage, they didn't get clock-stopping first downs often enough.
Remember the 1999 game against Florida State? Remember the final minute of play, when Doug Johnson twice threw short balls that failed to get first downs? Had the Gators kept 20-25 precious seconds in their back pocket, they might have been able to get the ball to the FSU 30, where a traditional pass play, not a Hail Mary, would have been available on the final play of the game. The principle was similar in Columbia last Saturday: in college football, scoring drives become short if each play gains a first down. Meyer needs to emphasize this when talking about game management and late-game situations when the Gators trail.
A second priority for Meyer in "Game Management 101" is to think about time and score. Yes, an 11-point deficit (such as the one the Gators faced in the final nine minutes against South Carolina) is a two-possession deficit. But 11 points is a tricky deficit to negotiate. Why? Because on one of those possessions, a two-point conversion needs to be made. It's one thing to be down one possession with a seven-point deficit; it's entirely another matter to be down one possession when trailing by eight. After all, a defense knows that even if it allows a touchdown, it can still win if it stacks up one play from the three-yard line. This enables a defense protecting an eight-point lead to be much more aggressive than one protecting a seven-point lead.
With all this in mind, Meyer should have realized the need for everyone in the offensive huddle to have good tempo in the huddle, so that the Gators could score with as much time remaining as possible. If the Gators had scored a touchdown with around six minutes left, they could have gone for two and known that, even if they missed the try to trail 30-25, they'd still have plenty of time to get the ball back and score another touchdown. And if the Gators had still scored just a field goal to make it 30-22, but with around SIX minutes left instead of three, they stood an outside chance of being able to not only get the ball back in decent field position in an attempt to tie, but to get the ball back a SECOND time if their two-point play failed. If nothing else, the Gators --- had they scored a TD and missed the conversion to trail 30-28 in the final minutes --- could have at least attempted the onsides kick they wound up trying with 2:51 left.
Speaking of that onsides kick…
The single play that affected this game as much as the other two more publicized plays (Sidney Rice's big catch-and-run, plus the punt team penalty in the final minute) was not the onsides kick itself, but the timeout Florida had to use on its previous drive, around the four-minute mark. This also plays into an awareness of time and score.
Far too often, teams seem to value five yards much more than a precious timeout. Sure, there are occasions when you must preserve yardage instead of timeouts. Having third and goal from the one when down four points is such a situation, and one can think of other instances when preserving five yards is essential. But on many, many other occasions, burning one of your three timeouts to save five yards is a bad, bad tradeoff, and when Florida had just two timeouts around the four-minute mark in a two-score game, Chris Leak and Urban Meyer needed to preserve both of those two timeouts for the defense. When Leak burned one of those timeouts, Meyer felt --- with some (but not total) justification --- that he needed to risk an onsides kick with just under 2:51 left. The decision to go for the onsides kick was a debatable one that I personally disagree with, but the larger point is that timeout conservation needs to be emphasized, and these kinds of things should always be talked about and, more importantly, understood by coach and player alike. Meyer's been in the coaching business long enough to know how to juggle timeouts and scoreboards and situations, and on Saturday, he didn't juggle very well in Williams-Brice Stadium.
A little bit about the onsides kick itself, while we're at it. From this vantage point, it was a bad decision. South Carolina had completed only seven passes all day, and had tremendous success running the ball. But when placed in clock-running, ball-protection mode, it stood to reason that South Carolina and Spurrier --- like other offenses merely trying to hang on to a late lead --- would merely try to run clock and not risk a clock-stopping pass. Ironically, if Florida had at least two timeouts, Spurrier --- realizing that the Gators could really stifle the clock --- might have been more inclined to throw a pass or run a special "ball play." But since Florida did have only one timeout at the time, it stood to reason that Spurrier would just drain clock and force Meyer to use his final timeout. As we all saw, this very scenario played out and burned the clock down to the one-minute mark.
One minute --- even without any timeouts, that's still not a terribly bad amount of time remaining. With the ball on their own 21 (before the punt team penalty), the Gators--had they gotten their hands on the ball --- would have had an excellent chance of setting up a Hail Mary, and a reasonable chance of getting to the USC 30-yard line or thereabouts.
But just consider: if Meyer had not chosen the onsides kick, the differential in field position would have been (in all probability) a solid 25 yards or so. Give Leak and the Gators the ball near midfield with a minute left, and there might have been a dramatic two-point conversion that, win or tie, would have crowned the final moments of regulation.
At the end of the day, you can talk about failing to run a no-huddle, or about the 12 men on the field penalty, but the real key in game management is to have reasonable contingency plans that maximize your strategic options by accounting for most, if not all, of the possibilities that lie ahead. The real reason why Meyer's decisions were poor is that they limited his team's options at every turn. Yes, if Florida had scored a touchdown and not a field goal, things might have been different. Yes, had Leak not burned that critical timeout with around four minutes to go, it might have turned out all right. Sure, if the onsides kick is recovered, Meyer's viewed as a genius.
But sound game management comes from an ability to weigh risks against rewards, and to distinguish extreme likelihoods from remote possibilities. For example, trying an onsides kick --- given the obvious risk of losing a lot of field position--makes a lot more sense when you're down three at 30-27 instead of eight at 30-22. If you have to drive from your own goal line, you might as well be in a situation where you only have to get to the opponent's 25, not the end zone. Furthermore, you kick an onsides kick in a one-possession game only when you're really worried about getting the ball back with enough time, or of getting the ball back at all. Against the other USC --- the team in Los Angeles, not Columbia --- that onsides kick would have made sense. Against a limited Gamecock offense --- forget who was coaching it up --- pulling the trigger with nearly three minutes left conveys a feeling of desperation while reflecting very short-range strategic vision. It's sad to say, but on virtually every count, Urban Meyer simply did not think very far ahead in the final nine minutes of regulation on Saturday. He managed the Georgia game superbly, but that was a game in which the Gators led from wire to wire. Meyer needs to reshape the way he manages games in which his team trails in the fourth quarter.
There's a lot to think about for Urban Meyer on the matter of game-day decision making, particularly in the fourth quarter. But if Mark Richt could take his own game management nightmare and then win three East titles and one league crown, Meyer can do the same thing as well. If he wants to become an Urban Legend and not an Urban Myth, Meyer will expect much more of himself as a coach, with game management being a core part of his --- and his program's --- march back to the SEC mountaintop.