ATHENS -- Around the Georgia football offices, a few people took to calling it the $2.9 million tackle. Why $2.9 million? That was Mark Richt’s salary, the amount he might have stopped earning if not for that tackle.
It saved the game. It saved the season. It might have saved Richt’s job.
On Saturday, Georgia plays at Vanderbilt for the first time since their surprisingly memorable game two years ago. It became more memorable for the postgame confrontation between Vanderbilt head coach James Franklin and Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham. But that was a sidelight.
The most important thing that happened came with seven seconds left, changing the trajectory of Georgia’s season and perhaps the program overall.
And it all might have turned on a tackle by the punter, Drew Butler.
“In hindsight, he won us the game. Saves the season, I guess you could say,” said Georgia tight end Arthur Lynch, then a sophomore. “Quite frankly, at that point in time, who knows how as a program how things might have happened. People would have been very hostile to us had we lost.”
“I’ve thought about it a bunch,” Richt said, when asked how much could have changed if Butler didn’t make the key tackle. “The margin of victory and the difference between winning and losing is really, really slim.”
Two years ago was Richt’s hot-seat year.
After two losses to open the season, Georgia had four wins in a row heading into the Vanderbilt game. And for most of that game, the Bulldogs seemed on their way to a win but couldn’t quite put the Commodores away. A kickoff return touchdown by Zac Stacy kept the Commodores in it.
“It was like the stars were aligning straight towards hell for us in special teams,” Lynch said.
It would get worse on the game’s pivotal play. Clinging to a 33-28 lead with 15 seconds left, Georgia lined up to punt from its own 45.
Butler went back to take the punt snap. Georgia had just switched to the three-man shield. Lynch was one of the up-men.
Butler thought the Commodores were going to bring all 11, but Vanderbilt ended up leaving a man back to return. But Peach County product Udom Umoh still sprinted in almost untouched from Butler’s right,and easily blocked it. Vanderbilt’s Kenny Ladler picked the ball up at the 28 but was stumbling and was trying to lateral it to a teammate.
He would have been able to had Butler not still been standing, rather than falling to the ground as so many other punters do after a block. It wasn’t so much a tackle as an intrusion. Butler was in the way as Ladler tried to lateral it, and when Steven Clarke picked it up, he was quickly on the ground at the 19.
“Instinct takes over,” Butler said Wednesday. “Somehow I kept my balance. I turned around, and chased that guy down.”
There were seven seconds left.
“I just remember going over to the sideline thinking we were gonna lose the game,” said Butler, who was with the Pittsburgh Steelers last season.
But the defense held. Jordan Rodgers threw an incompletion, then a short pass to Brandon Barden, who was tackled 16 yards from the end zone. Georgia had escaped.
“I’ve never been in a locker room like that after a win,” Butler said. “I mean, it felt like we lost. Obviously we were happy to get the win, but it wasn’t your normal joyful experience.”
Georgia’s next game was against Florida, which it had not defeated in four years. The Bulldogs won and eventually clinched the SEC East title. By the time Georgia walked into the SEC championship game, when its 10-game winning streak was snapped, Richt’s job was secure.
It’s impossible to know for sure whether Richt would have kept his job without the Vanderbilt win. The Bulldogs might have gone into Jacksonville and won anyway. Or a loss to the Commodores could have crumpled their season.
That can’t be known. All that’s known is how it did play out.
“It was crazy, but it was really a blessing disguise, because I felt it really refocused us for the rest of the season,” Butler said of the Vanderbilt scare. “It took us down to Jacksonville, we played and beat Florida that next week. It was just a wild happening, and a wild group of events, but I think it definitely helped us kind of re-gain focus for the rest of the season, and accomplish what we wanted to.”
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