Christopher Smith’s unusual touchdown return highlights brilliant day for UGA

Credit: Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason.Getz@ajc.com

The ball rolled to a stop at the Georgia 4-yard line, and Bulldogs safety Christopher Smith hovered over it with a seeming “Should I do it?” uncertainty. Teammate Nazir Stackhouse had broken through the LSU line to block Damian Ramos’ first-quarter field-goal try, and the ball bounced toward the Bulldogs goal line.

If Smith picked up the ball, it would be live. If not, it would be whistled dead and Georgia would start on its 20-yard line. Two teammates waved at him to leave it alone. Smith wasn’t so sure about heeding their instruction.

“That’s a scenario we go over a lot,” Smith said. “We know if the ball passes the line of scrimmage, we have an opportunity to be able to pick it up. I was just waiting to get the go from the sideline. When the sideline gave me a go, I picked it up and I just started hitting it.”

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Smith scooped it up with both hands, cradled it in his left arm and made a beeline down the Bulldogs sideline. He didn’t stop until he reached the far end zone, along the way earning an enduring place in Georgia fans’ collective memory banks by making one of the more unusual and impactful plays in recent history.

Smith’s 96-yard return of a blocked field-goal try jolted the SEC Championship game late in the first quarter, turning a potential LSU field goal and early Tigers lead into a 7-0 lead for the Bulldogs en route to their 50-30 victory at Mercedes-Benz Stadium for their first SEC title since 2017.

“I was just saying, just get away from it,” linebacker Smael Mondon, one of the players to wave off Smith. “But the way it panned out, Chris made a smart play. I’m happy he didn’t listen to me.”

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This was not the case of an uncertain player lucking his way into a touchdown. In his fifth season with the team, Smith understood the situation. About every three weeks, coach Kirby Smart said, players watch unusual plays in team meetings and are reminded of their responsibilities. Smart is OK with players picking the ball up in that instance, but has a caveat.

“The rule is you’re not allowed to pick it up unless you score with it,” Smart said.

It was about as easy a 96-yard touchdown as ever has been scored. Racing downfield with teammates, he was not close to being touched by an LSU player as he sped to the goal line.

“You could see him thinking about (picking up the ball),” Smart said. “Then he realized there’s nobody coming. So he went.”

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LSU coach Brian Kelly accepted responsibility for his team’s failure to recognize that Georgia could advance the ball. It was a situation not dissimilar from Auburn’s “Kick Six” touchdown return against Alabama in 2013 and Georgia Tech’s “Miracle on Techwood Drive” game-winning touchdown against Florida State in 2015.

“Obviously, we did a poor job coaching,” Kelly said. “It’s our responsibility to have our guys alert in that situation. They were not alert, and that falls on coaching, and that falls on my shoulders.”

It was the first of three highly impactful plays that Smith made Saturday. He made the second on the first play of the second quarter. With Georgia ahead 14-7, LSU quarterback Jayden Daniels fired a pass to receiver Jack Bech on a slant route. Lined up deep at safety, Smith broke on the ball and arrived just as the pass did, crashing into Bech to break up the pass. Most times, the ball would fall to the ground for an incompletion and, in this case, a third-and-12 on the LSU 23.

But, unfortunately for the Tigers, the ball bounced off the back of Bech’s helmet as he lay face down on the ground and went up in the air, where it was tipped by nickel back Javon Bullard before Mondon grabbed it out for an interception.

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It was Daniels’ third interception of the season and presumably one of the few in his career aided by a pinball-like carom off his intended target’s helmet.

“It was happening in slow motion,” Mondon said. “I just saw the ball bounce up, and it felt like it was just floating there. I grabbed it. It felt like a dream, really.”

While Mondon’s interception was a play aided by chance, Smith’s initial reaction that created the pass breakup was anything but. At the postgame news conference, Smart hailed Smith for making a play practically identical to Saturday’s against Clemson in the 2021 season that he turned into a 74-yard interception return for a touchdown.

“He played it aggressive; he understood what the quarterback check was; he understood his leverage,” Smart said before turning to Smith, sharing the news conference with him. “How many times you think you’ve run that stunt since you’ve been here?”

“A ton,” Smith replied.

“A ton,” Smart repeated, sounding a little bit like a pleased teacher. “And he saw it, he jumped it, and by him jumping it, it caused the ball to go in the air, and then it bounced off him.”

On the next play after the interception, Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett connected with receiver Ladd McConkey for a 22-yard touchdown pass. At that point, the Bulldogs had run 11 plays to LSU’s 24, had been outgained 158-98 and yet somehow led 21-7, with Smith’s playmaking – both conventional and clever – impacting heavily.

Smith made his final big play with 10:43 left in the fourth quarter, snuffing out a potential Tigers touchdown drive by intercepting quarterback Garrett Nussmeier’s throw into the end zone to Kayshon Boutte with the score 50-23 in Georgia’s favor.

Georgia 50, LSU 30

While most Georgia fans might have viewed Saturday’s game as a mere prelude to the Bulldogs’ attempted capture of back-to-back national championships, Smith found much more meaning in it. In his second season as a starter, Smith has accomplished plenty in a Bulldogs uniform. He is, among other things, a finalist for the Bronko Nagurski Trophy as the nation’s top defensive player. But before Saturday, Smith had yet to win an SEC title. Since coming to Athens in 2018, this was his fourth SEC title game, the first three of which he left Mercedes-Benz Stadium without a title.

“I told those kids, I don’t want one kid to walk out of our program without an SEC championship ring in their career, and that was about to happen if we didn’t get that one (Saturday),” Smart said. “And they said enough was enough (Saturday).”

With plays that spoke volumes, Smith said it as loud as anyone.

“It feels amazing,” Smith said. “Just coming up short so many times, just to finally be able to get a win, it feels great.”

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