Kicking game errors still plaguing Bulldogs

September, 23, 2013
9/23/13
10:00
AM ET

ATHENS, Ga. -- Arthur Lynch refused to let snapper Nathan Theus remain the only scapegoat after North Texas blocked a Georgia punt for a touchdown, the fourth huge special teams error by the Bulldogs in three games.

Although Theus' snap was high -- an error that led Georgia's coaching staff to replace him with Trent Frix later in the game -- senior punt protector Lynch said he misdiagnosed what the Mean Green's rushers were preparing to do and shifted the Bulldogs' coverage.

“That was my fault,” Lynch said. “I should have shifted the protection to the left. The snap and the punter had nothing to do with that. If I would have just gotten the protection corrected … I'll put that on me. We'll correct that.

“It's unfortunate, I knew what was going on and I should have called timeout so we could have shifted it. And that's inexcusable, especially for the fact that I've been doing it for three years.”

No. 9 Georgia (2-1) thoroughly dominated Saturday's game statistically, but two special teams touchdowns by North Texas -- the Mean Green also returned a kickoff for a 99-yard score -- helped make it 21-all early in the third quarter.

It continued a string of early mishaps in the kicking game -- Theus' high snap late in the third quarter against Clemson prevented the Bulldogs from attempting a potential game-tying 20-yard field goal, plus punter Collin Barber dropped a snap in the second quarter against South Carolina, setting up a short touchdown drive – that form an alarming trend.

[+] EnlargeNorth Texas
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsNorth Texas players celebrate after a blocked punt resulted in a touchdown against Georgia.
“We've probably had 100 special teams plays by now, but you just hate that the bad ones have been really bad,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said.

The timing of those errors might be useful for Georgia's coaches, however, considering the opponent preparing to visit on Saturday. Traditionally dangerous on special teams, players from No. 6 LSU (4-0) are no doubt excited over the possibility of making a game-changing play off a return or fake kick against the Bulldogs.

That's a convenient reminder where Richt's coaching staff can reinforce the importance of special teams in this week's practices.

“It's OK to be on high alert this week, so maybe it will help us,” Richt said.

The older players on Georgia's roster probably don't need the reminder on how LSU's return teams can shift the course of a game. The last time these teams played, in the 2011 SEC championship game, LSU punt returner Tyrann “Honey Badger” Mathieu helped swing a game that Georgia controlled early with a 62-yard touchdown return and helped turn it into a rout with a 47-yard runback later in the game.

Mathieu is now in the NFL, but the Tigers' current return specialist, Odell Beckham Jr., is nearly as explosive.

“Unfortunately for us, we've seen what their return teams can do: The Honey Badger,” Lynch said.

Auburn didn't give Beckham many opportunities to break a long return on Saturday night. He was able to return just one kickoff and one punt thanks to Auburn's deep and high kicks, neutralizing an explosive player who returned a missed UAB field goal 109 yards for a touchdown earlier this season.

There were still a couple of big special teams plays on Saturday, however -- one that helped LSU and one that hurt. Auburn punter Steven Clark dropped a snap and dove on the ball for a 16-yard loss at his own 10 early in the game, setting up an LSU touchdown on the next play that helped the Tigers go up 14-0.

Leading 28-7 in the third quarter, LSU coach Les Miles elected to fake a field goal at Auburn's 14. Seth Fruge ran 8 yards on the fake, but was stopped short of a first down. Auburn then drove 94 yards for a touchdown that made it a more competitive game, although LSU still won 35-21.

That aggressiveness is part of the reason the Bulldogs know they can't afford to keep making sloppy errors in the kicking game.

“We've just had a couple of off calls. I'm not worried about it,” said Barber, who averaged 49.8 yards per punt against North Texas. “I trust my protection, pride team. We're going to be the best. There's no doubt in my mind that we can't fix it and get it better by LSU.”

That could mean using different personnel on the coverage units, Richt said, beyond simply using Frix as the punt snapper -- although he said it's likely that change will remain in place this week.

“Your center can't afford to be spraying one a game. You can't afford it,” Richt said. “It's got to be on the money. It's got to be where it's supposed to be when it's supposed to be there.”

The coaches will make those decisions this week after reviewing what went wrong -- as well as what went right -- against the Mean Green. And Richt made the point on his Sunday teleconference that there has been more right than wrong.

“We'd been really covering kicks extremely well all year long and then you get one like that [touchdown],” he said. “You might think it's broken, but it's really not broken. We've just got to go back to doing what we've been doing all year long and that's placing the ball where we want it and getting guys down there covering it, being in the right spots and making the play when they get there.”

The Bulldogs would do themselves an enormous favor if they get back to doing that on Saturday. Beckham is one of the nation's most dangerous all-purpose performers and he will absolutely exploit any crack in Georgia's kick coverage schemes.

Cleaning up those mistakes was one of the first objectives when the Bulldogs began preparing for LSU on Sunday afternoon.

“Trust me, we know what kind of guys they've got,” Lynch said. “… Special teams will be a deciding factor in this game, I think.”

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