Georgia's secondary gets 1 last shot at redemption
At 2018 SEC Media Days, Georgia was forced to address the elephant in the room.
It was roughly 6 months removed from one of the most memorable plays in college football history. The play that became known as “2nd-and-26” was still on the minds of many who hurled questions at Kirby Smart and Georgia’s player representatives at the College Football Hall of Fame just down the road from the scene of the crime in Atlanta.
Smart said that he didn’t use it as motivation because his 2018 team was different from the one that walked off the field after that 2017 College Football Playoff National Championship loss to Alabama. Georgia safety J.R. Reed was one of the player representatives at SEC Media Days. He was on the opposite side of the field when Tua Tagovailoa’s pass floated into the arms of DeVonta Smith. Reed, that day in Atlanta, insisted that players moved on from that on the bus ride home and that all Georgia could control was the future.
What Reed didn’t know at the time was that 4 1/2 months after he said that, he’d again watch an Alabama backup quarterback enter the game in the 2nd half and carve up the Georgia secondary in a do-or-die game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Reed and the Georgia secondary is still searching for redemption. On Saturday, they’ll get that chance. A final chance it’ll be for Reed.
And while it isn’t Alabama this time, this is arguably the toughest hurdle for the Georgia secondary yet.
Joe Burrow and the LSU passing offense etched their names into the record books on a seemingly weekly basis. Burrow already is the SEC’s single-season passing yardage leader, and his next touchdown pass will break Drew Lock’s SEC single-season mark.
That, in all likelihood, will come Saturday. He has at least 1 touchdown pass in every game this year. Burrow only had 1 game of just 1 passing score and he had at least 3 TD pass in 10 of LSU’s 12 games this year.
It’ll be a challenge that’s somewhat similar to the Alabama matchup last year, which Reed and Co. aced for roughly 3 quarters. Georgia actually got redemption on Tagovailoa. He was held to 10-of-25 passing for 164 yards with 1 touchdown pass and 2 interceptions. Who had those interceptions? Richard LeCounte, and of course, Reed.
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The irony was rich. It was once again Tagovailoa trying to look off the safety and take a shot downfield on the left side (moving left to right on your TV). Both passes were thrown to the 2-yard line. The issue the second time was that Tagovailoa waited a split-second longer to make the throw. And, well, Reed was on that side of the field this time.
The other difference? It wasn’t a game-ending play, though with Georgia up 28-14 in the middle of the 3rd quarter, it sort of felt like it could have been. The 21 unanswered points from Alabama came after that, as did the all-too-familiar feeling of walking off the field at Mercedes-Benz Stadium knowing that another letdown from the secondary resulted in a blown double-digit lead and another season without a national championship.
Saturday won’t be another crack at Alabama, and for a program that experienced an SEC Championship victory in 2017, it’s not like it’s the “Mercedes-Benz Stadium curse.”
But for guys like Reed and LeCounte, you get the feeling that no matter what they say, there’s a whole lot of redemption to be had.
There’s also the opportunity to avenge last year’s blowout loss at LSU. Georgia actually held Burrow and the LSU passing game in check (200 passing yards, 0 passing TDs), but that was obviously a vastly different offense. Call it the “pre-Joe Brady era,” if you will. That’s why it doesn’t make much sense to use that as a barometer for how Saturday will play out.
A lot has happened since that game 14 months ago. Burrow went from average SEC quarterback to overwhelming Heisman Trophy favorite, and LSU went from being the team that couldn’t score a point against Alabama to the team who took down Nick Saban in record-setting offensive fashion. That squashed the overwhelming preseason belief that Georgia would get a 3rd shot at redemption against Alabama in the SEC Championship.
But while LSU ascended to the college football elite, Georgia’s secondary has also looked like a special unit. During the regular season, the Dawgs allowed the fewest yards per completion in FBS (9.75), and they ranked 3rd in yards per attempt allowed (5.4).
The leadership of a guy like Reed on the back end certainly helped in some key moments this year. Smart said after the Notre Dame win that Reed “bailed them out.” LeCounte has been a playmaking machine lately with either a fumble forced, a fumble recovery, an interception or a tackle for loss in each of Georgia’s past 4 games. In addition to first-year full-time starting cornerbacks D.J. Daniel and Eric Stokes and a host of young defensive backs who figure to play Saturday, they’ll have their work cut out for them against LSU’s loaded group of pass-catchers.
Justin Jefferson has 1,092 receiving yards and 13 scores while Ja’Marr Chase (1,457 yards, 17 TDs) seems like a shoe-in to win the Biletnikoff Award as the nation’s top receiver.
Last year, Georgia held eventual Biletnikoff winner Jerry Jeudy in check for nearly the entire day. Before Tagovailoa went down, the Alabama wideout had just 1 catch for 12 yards. In stepped Jalen Hurts, and Jeudy promptly delivered the game-tying touchdown catch, despite some tight coverage from Georgia safety Tyrique McGhee.
McGhee will suit up for Georgia on Saturday, as will Reed, LeCounte and a bunch of other players who were there in 2017. This will be the last time for a bunch of the guys from that 2017 team to get the redemption they’ve been seeking for the past 2 years.
Reed’s words at 2018 SEC Media Days still hold true — all Georgia can do is control its future.
And with that, perhaps, it can ease the pain of the past.