Shortly after 7 p.m. last Saturday, Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson may not have been shaken, but the Yellow Jackets’ sharp-witted leader was not himself.
“I don’t know what to say,” Johnson said, beginning his post-game news conference following Tech’s 42-36 overtime loss to Miami. “I’m as disappointed as I think I’ve ever been.”
His funk continued after he returned home. He watched football games and, with his daughter Kaitlyn visiting from college, tried to not be miserable. He re-played the game in his head 40 times, he said later, and finally fell asleep at 4:45 a.m., a half-hour before he woke up to go to the office to review game video and begin preparing for Middle Tennessee State.
By Tuesday morning, Johnson was offering a new tune.
“I’d be more concerned if we were trotting out there every week and we’re getting pummeled 50-6 and there wasn’t much hope,” he said. “Call me an optimist. I don’t think anybody’s ever considered me a real optimist about things, but I guess I see it a little differently.”
A year ago, a 6-0 start required him to rein in the hype. This season has assigned a different task to bet-your-bottom-dollar Paul Johnson – re-directing the Yellow Jackets’ attention away from two gut-punch losses and the damage they’ve caused to Tech’s chances of winning the ACC and onto the final eight games of the season. The only goal for this week, Johnson said, is to beat Middle Tennessee State.
Said Johnson, “We’ve still got a ton to play for.”
A solid win against the Blue Raiders could yet propel the Jackets down a rosy path. A matchup with No. 17 Clemson follows MTSU, after which Tech will have its open date. Two wins would complete the first half at 4-2 and generate a more hopeful outlook for the remainder of the season.
In 2011, “we got off to a great start and didn’t finish well,” Johnson said. “This year, we get off to a mediocre start. Maybe we have a great finish.”
For Tech, the wake of the Miami loss subsided Monday, when Johnson started the week as usual. Following a video review of the special teams, he addresses the team and goes over team grades for mental errors and “efforts” – plays in which a player did not give complete effort. The talk rehashes the previous game and sets the tone for the week.
With a new opponent six days away, the highs or lows from the previous Saturday need to be deleted at that point.
“The day that [a loss] hurts the most is Sunday, because you’re sitting there not doing anything,” defensive end Izaan Cross said. “Once Monday hits, you’ve got to flush it down the toilet. You have to.”
The degree to which Cross, who was elected a captain this week along with quarterback Tevin Washington and guard Omoregie Uzzi, and his teammates can move past that pain will shape the rest of the season. Tech’s season-opening loss to Virginia Tech and last Saturday’s to Miami were not only devastating – Tech lost both after leading in the final minute of regulation – but went a long way to knocking the Jackets out of the ACC race. The Coastal Division title is still possible, but it would most likely require both the Hokies and Hurricanes to lose three ACC games and Tech to finish 6-2 in league play.
Johnson’s hope isn’t unfounded. The offense, which faltered in the fourth quarter and overtime, is third in the country in rushing offense and 13th in scoring. The defense, which was scalded by Miami, showed better form in the first three games.
The Jackets might take encouragement from the 2000 Tech team, which started 2-2 with similarly disheartening losses, 26-21 to then-No. 2 Florida State and an overtime defeat to N.C. State. Those Jackets won the final seven games of the regular season before losing in the Peach Bowl to LSU.
With two costly losses that could have easily been wins, the Jackets aren’t where they had hoped to be.
“But I don’t think it’s [time] to sack the bats and call it a day,” Johnson said.
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Ken Sugiura, Georgia Tech blog