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Post Biggest play in the Chick-fil-A Bowl?

Tuesday January 2, 2007

There were a lot of big plays by both teams in Saturday’s Chick-fil-A Bowl. Georgia had them on offense, defense, and special teams in the second half. But the biggest play might have been a simple pass on a short drive that resulted in no points.

Entering the third quarter, Georgia hadn’t managed a first down and only two yards of offense since its first drive. They had no running game to speak of, and passes were either intercepted, dropped, or off the mark. Through turnovers and special teams Virginia Tech had scored three times with a short field. The second half didn’t start much better. A short kickoff return gave the ball to the Dawgs on their own 16 yard line. Two plays only moved the ball three yards. Georgia faced third-and-seven from their own 19, and they hadn’t converted a third down all evening.

Then Matthew Stafford hit Mario Raley for a 24-yard pass down the seam. The pass itself was impressive enough. Any flatter and it would have been tipped by a linebacker. Any more time in the air and a defensive back would have made a play on the ball. It was Stafford’s best-thrown ball to that point, and it would be the first in a series of beautiful second half passes. Then there was the catch. Raley was hit and dropped as soon as he caught the ball. This was the same Mario Raley who less than two months ago was knocked motionless and carted off the field at Kentucky after catching another pass across the middle of the field. To most watching it was just a nice completion, but those familiar with the shot Raley took in Lexington know how truly impressive it was that he made this play and hung on to the ball.

Raley’s reception didn’t result in a score; Georgia advanced the ball as far as midfield before they had to punt. But the effect of the play was to flip the field and force a Virginia Tech offense that had operated from midfield or better for much of the first half to start their first third quarter drive from their own 10. It started a series of events that changed the game. Georgia’s defense held. Virginia Tech had to punt from their own 18. Mikey Henderson returned the punt 20 yards. On the next play, Stafford hit Brannan Southerland down the middle for 26 yards, and Georgia soon started an incredible string of 28 consecutive points to beat their third consecutive ranked opponent.

We’ll all remember the onside kick or the many stellar defensive plays or the long pass to Milner, but it all started with a pass to a nearly-forgotten senior receiver who shook off one of the most devastating and scary moments a football player can experience to go back across the middle and come up big in his last game.

If you’ve got another underrated play that featured into the win, be sure to leave a comment.

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