- Ryan McGee, ESPN Senior Writer
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For four months, ESPN The Magazine will follow the march to the BCS championship game, moment by moment, culminating in our Story of the Season double issue on Dec. 27. Every Tuesday, Mag senior writer Ryan McGee will pick the previous week's biggest moments and tell you why they'll have the most impact on potential BCS title matchups. If you disagree, send a tweet to @ESPNMag and tell us why your moment matters more, using the hashtag #StoryoftheSeason. Who knows? Your moment (and tweet) might just end up in our issue.
IT'S SUCH A cliché to say that football is a game of inches. But tell me how many clichés ain’t the truth?
Just a few days before the start of the 2013 season, HBO aired an episode of "The Newsroom" during which a preachy-yet-usually-correct anchorman (played by Jeff Daniels) opines about near-misses. How the direction of American history has been written as much by wobbly chairs and weird weather as it has by well-intentioned men and women. “So sometimes,” Daniels explained, leaned over a table, “it’s just the one thing.”
On Saturday night, Mark Richt was also leaning over a table. He had just emerged from the visitors’ locker room at Memorial Stadium, having addressed his Georgia Bulldogs after a crushing 38-35 season-opening loss to the Clemson Tigers. Richt didn’t steal any lines from Daniels’ monologue, but what he said would have fit snugly into the script.
“It’d been interesting to know what would have happened if we’d have made that short-range field goal.”
With 1:05 remaining in the third quarter, the entire Georgia sideline joined Richt to watch a 20-yard field goal that would pull the Bulldogs even at 31-31. The coach was a little more anxious than normal about the chip shot because the kicker was Patrick Beless. The walk-on redshirt sophomore’s only other live-action field goal wasn’t even a live-action field goal. It was a 23-yarder in the team’s G-Day spring scrimmage.
But Beless had been pressed into service because starting kicker Marshall Morgan was suspended by Richt after his boating under the influence arrest in late July. Throughout the rest of summer practice, Richt directly forbade all players involved with the kicking game to talk to the media, from punters to placekickers to holders to likable long-snapper Nathan Theus. Leading up to the weekend, Richt joked that everyone would know what the plan was “by halftime of the Clemson game.”
The initial speculation was that another walk-on, junior Adam Erickson, would replace Morgan. But in the end, Richt decided that keeping Erickson, the backup punter, as the regular holder of Theus' snaps would provide stability.
The Bulldogs’ opening drive ended in a punt, but their next four offensive series finished in the end zone. On all four PATs, Theus snapped it cleanly to Erickson, who placed it onto the turf perfectly for Beless, who flawlessly booted the ball through the uprights. Their first and only field goal attempt was little more than another extra point, with the line of scrimmage at the 2 and Erickson on his knees at the 10.
Before the snap, Theus, a 6-foot-3, 241-pound redshirt sophomore, sensed a space open off his right shoulder, but off his left shoulder, he felt crowded. It was 6-1, 285-pound DeShawn Williams, aka Big Nuke 99, who had his head stuck in as close to being offside without actually being called offside as is humanly possible. Big Nuke’s left shoulder was essentially resting on Theus’ left shoulder.
In the fraction of a second before the ball was snapped, all 20 men who were crammed along the line of scrimmage held completely still … except for Williams, who stomped his feet: left foot once, right foot twice.
The long-snapper’s goal is to keep his actions smooth amid chaos, applying even pressure from both hands and moving both arms back in a perfectly parallel throwing motion, then seamlessly raising upright into a crouched blocking position. But Theus gave it a little too much gas with the left arm, the arm that had been all but resting against Williams’ shoulder. The good news was that he got a quick launch into Williams, driving the now-standing tackle out of the likely path of the football. The bad news was that the ball wasn’t coming.
For Richt, who has long stuck to the practice of not having a special-teams coach, the most frustrating aspect of watching the play on Sunday morning was that the snap still looked pretty good. Erickson still nearly pulled it down. He managed to keep his knees bent and get his hands on the football. Had it been two knuckles lower, or had the 5-foot-10 holder been able to extend his arms perhaps one more inch, he might have pulled it down and gotten it set for Beless … and who knows?
Instead, the ball fell to the turf and Erickson dived to smother it. Then he was smothered by Big Nuke. When Williams jumped up to celebrate, he crashed into a Georgia player, who promptly gave him a “get the hell off me” forearm shot. It was Theus, who didn’t know that at that exact moment he was being identified by Brent Musberger on national television. That never happens for a guy like Theus, unless the situation has gone horribly wrong.
So did Georgia lose the game on that field goal try? No. As Richt explained during his postgame news conference, there were plenty of other chances to put Clemson away. The Bulldogs could have scored on the three plays leading up to the field goal attempt, all of them starting inside the Tigers' 6-yard line.
But on Saturday night, there was only one play with which Richt played “what if?” And with Georgia's and Clemson’s schedules, it’s a what-if that could have repercussions far beyond Aug. 31 and well beyond Death Valley. Georgia rolls into another top-10 matchup, hosting South Carolina. The Tigers will see the Gamecocks at regular season’s end. If the Bulldogs win, they're still in the SEC East hunt. If Clemson loses, will we point to the Georgia win as proof the Tigers shouldn't be knocked out of the BCS title game?
In other words, we could still be talking about Theus' snap when we get to Pasadena in January.
“It’s very disappointing, but that’s football,” UGA receiver Justin Scott-Wesley explained before the team boarded the bus back to Athens. “It’s a game of inches.
• Elsewhere in the cosmic tumblers department, it’s not misguided to think that the weekend’s slew of Davids slaying Goliaths could have far-reaching effects for other Goliaths as the season rolls along. When the Oregon State Beavers lose to Eastern Washington, it should send chills down the spine of the Stanford Cardinal, who narrowly escaped the Beavers one year ago and will travel to Corvallis on Oct. 26. Even a close game would hurt Stanford’s national rep, not to mention those of the USC Trojans (Nov. 1) and Oregon Ducks (Nov. 29). Same scenario applies for the schools of the Big 12 if they get “upset” by the Kansas State Wildcats, who were beaten by two-time defending FCS champ North Dakota State ...
• But the biggest shock waves will likely be coming from Storrs, Conn., where the Huskies have started jackhammering the already thin ice beneath the Louisville Cardinals’ national title hopes. The American Athletic Conference was a mess entering the season, but when Towson toppled UConn, the whole league went down another notch. The Huskies host Teddy Bridgewater on Nov. 8, a game they won at Louisville in OT last season.
• During NFL training camp, I had a conversation with former Appalachian State QB (current Carolina Panthers receiver) Armanti Edwards about being the little guys who beat the big guy and still have a chance to beat some other big guys. “I remember after we beat Michigan [in ’07] how everyone talked about them the rest of the year. I’ve talked to guys who played them later that year and they all say they were so scared to lose to Michigan because it’d be like they lost to us, too.” He mentioned Penn State and Florida, a pair of top-10 teams that fell to the Wolverines that year, as well as Notre Dame. Then he laughed. “We ended up wrecking a lot of people’s seasons, didn’t we?”
This year’s version of Edwards is Eastern Washington quarterback Vernon Adams. Against then-No. 25 Oregon State, he was 23-of-30 for 411 yards and four TDs through the air and ran for 107 yards and two TDs on the ground. Anyone who follows FCS football already knew he had explosive capabilities, but this year he looks more in control of his talents. A big reason for that is time spent over the summer with another Washington-based QB (and current ESPN The Mag cover model), Russell Wilson.
Adams says they talked plenty about mechanics and football skills, but also about being the little guy. “We’re the same height, and people have always tried to say he’s too short. But he’s had a lot of success. Perhaps I can, too.”
So far, so good.