Georgia Tech did not need overtime to falter Saturday.
The Yellow Jackets, uninspired and perhaps still groggy from its second crushing overtime loss of the season a week ago, required only the regulation 60 minutes to capitulate. Tech was force-fed the worst loss of coach Paul Johnson’s five-year tenure, a 49-28 defeat to Middle Tennessee State at Bobby Dodd Stadium.
MTSU, an FBS school out of the Sun Belt Conference that has produced wins this season over Arkansas (by Louisiana-Monroe) and Kentucky (Western Kentucky), pounded the listless Jackets with 510 yards of offense, forced four turnovers and neutralized Tech with force and energy. On this day, at least, little doubt existed over the identity of the superior team.
“I told (MTSU) Coach (Rick) Stockstill after the game (that) they got after us, whipped our butt, and give them some credit, because they played hard,” Johnson said. “After saying that, it was embarrassing. I don’t think there’s any other way to describe it.”
Plenty of conditions for an upset congregated Saturday at Bobby Dodd – a tough loss the previous week, a noon start, key players sidelined with injuries (outside linebacker Jeremiah Attaochu and cornerback Louis Young), a half-filled stadium and a confident opponent eager for payback and arriving with two weeks’ rest.
Tech did the rest in falling to 2-3.
On the road, with fewer resources and fielding a roster full of players deemed unworthy of a scholarship to Tech, the Blue Raiders (3-1) steamrolled the Jackets. It was the sort of result that Johnson produced regularly at Navy, leading to his hire at Tech following the 2007 season. Johnson said it was probably the worst loss of his career.
“We didn’t throw the ball much,” MTSU guard Josh Walker, who overpowered Tech defensive linemen all afternoon, told the Daily News Journal of Murfreesboro, Tenn. “We didn’t have to. We were so physical, and we ran the football right at them. We were more physical than them, faster than them and in better shape than them.”
The Jackets’ start offered little hint of the waterfall that they were heading towards. Inside linebacker Jabari Hunt-Days intercepted MTSU quarterback Logan Kilgore on the game’s first possession, a turnover that Tech turned into the first of quarterback Tevin Washington’s four rushing touchdowns. Washington’s four ground scores tied a school single-game record and perhaps set a new standard for least cherished record.
Tech’s fabric disintegrated quickly after that. The Blue Raiders countered with a 75-yard touchdown drive, the first of three such drives in the half. None of them measured less than 75 yards and included a 60-yard score by MTSU running back Benny Cunningham in which he shot through a gap in the line and scored untouched.
Tied at 21 at halftime, the Jackets found themselves in a shootout with a team they had defeated by a combined 56 points in the past two seasons and were favored to beat by almost 30 points.
“We went down and scored after the defense gave us the ball,” Washington said. “After that, there wasn’t much life on the sideline or out there on the field. We just came out too flat [Saturday]. When you give another team energy and momentum, it’s hard to stop them once they get going.”
The Tech defense was again flattened, done in by its opponents’ play-calling and offensive line and its own slippery tackling attempts. Prior to the game, Johnson said he thought that last week’s play against Miami – 609 yards, 30 first downs, missed tackles galore – was an aberration. Nothing much looked different Saturday, save the colors of the opponents’ jerseys and the chants from the visiting fans that drowned out the home crowd.
“That’s probably as bad a tackling game as I have seen,” Johnson said.
There was no tackling on the Blue Raiders’ two longest scores of the game. No Jacket laid a hand on Cunningham on his 60-yard touchdown run on the first play of the second quarter or wide receiver Marcus Henry’s 75-yard scoring reception, also down the center of the field, in the third quarter.
MTSU’s ransacking ought to make McNeese State, Florida Atlantic and Memphis feel better. The Cowboys, Owls and Tigers all managed to keep the Blue Raiders under 500 yards in MTSU’s first three games. McNeese State, an FCS team, actually beat MTSU in the opener, 27-21.
The Jackets had a final opportunity in the fourth quarter trailing 35-28. After forcing a punt, Tech started a drive on its 17-yard line with 8:20 left in the game. Despite having been outplayed, a chance for a 14-point fourth-quarter comeback like the one that the Jackets had permitted last Saturday against Miami flickered in the afternoon light.
On a play-action pass on the first play from scrimmage, Washington heaved a pass downfield to wide receiver Jeff Greene around the MTSU 40-yard line. Greene couldn’t hang onto the slightly underthrown pass, which was intercepted by cornerback Kenneth Gilstrap and returned to the Tech 15-yard line. The Blue Raiders got into the end zone in four plays for a 42-28 advantage.
That was the end of the flickering.