Signs of change were everywhere.
Bobby Dodd’s stands weren’t half-red. Thus, the game didn’t have the usual neutral-site feel to it. Bowl officials didn’t jam the press box. What for? Georgia Tech’s future was fairly simple, and Georgia’s was fairly depressing. The Jackets could be headed to the Orange Bowl, a game with history. The Bulldogs could be headed to the PapaJohns.com Bowl, a game with anchovies. The Dogs even had a temp-Uga on the sideline.
But if the Jackets feel like they just got knocked back in time, there’s a reason.
A year ago, they stunned Georgia at home and tore branches off the sacred hedges. On Saturday, with an eight-game winning streak and a fantasy season unfolding, they fell behind early to the Bulldogs 17-3 and fell short in a comeback. They lost 30-24.
The 12 months of bragging just kicked off from the other direction.
It doesn’t mean Tech can’t win the ACC title. It doesn’t mean the Jackets can’t play in Miami and finish 12-2. But this one will sting for a year because this is one most expected they would win. They were playing a mediocre Georgia team coming off a loss to Kentucky, and it doesn’t get much worse than that.
Tech coach Paul Johnson downplayed the significance of this game earlier in the week. He believes everybody should focus on the big picture, and that picture includes conference championships and competing for BCS bowls, not just bragging rights over big brother from Athens. “I don’t want to leave the wrong impression because I do realize that the game is important and I know for a lot of our fans that this is the game they want to win,” Johnson said. “[But] we want to get to the point where our program is bigger than one game. We want to win the game, but we want to do some other things that just beating Georgia won’t do for you.”
And Johnson’s right. Tech’s season is about more than beating Georgia. But beating Georgia ranks pretty high.
Bottom line: This was the Jackets’ chance to take charge, and they failed.
This won’t do much to boost morale in the ACC’s offices, either. The conference’s two championship game entries, Tech and Clemson (to South Carolina), both closed the regular season with losses to SEC rivals.
Tech trailed 17-3 at halftime. It clawed back to within 30-24 in the fourth quarter after a touchdown run by Josh Nesbitt, who keyed the comeback when he returned from an ankle injury. When Georgia’s Blair Walsh missed a 55-yard field goal attempt with three minutes remaining, it gave them one last chance. But a dropped pass by Demaryius Thomas at the Dogs’ 35 ended the final threat.
There was a general consensus that this would be a high-scoring game, with the game’s two defensive coordinators, Georgia’s Willie Martinez and Tech’s Dave Wommack, taking turns absorbing blows like those old inflatable clowns that keep bouncing back up after being punched. (In Martinez’s case, there’s no guarantee he’ll be bouncing back up after the season.)
What nobody figured: At halftime, Tech would be trailing 17-3 and its run-dominated offense — one of the top units in the nation — would be outrushed by Georgia 204-80. (On second thought, maybe it’s Wommack who won’t be bouncing back up.) That kept the Jackets’ offense off the field.
Not only was Tech limited to four possessions, it lost Nesbitt, who might as well be this team’s transmission. When he suffered a sprained ankle with 1:03 left in the first quarter, every projection about this game changed. He tested the injury on the sideline, eventually went into the locker room, presumably for a wonder cure, and returned during the second. But backup Jaybo Shaw ran the next possession and threw an interception, which the Bulldogs turned into a touchdown and the 17-3 halftime lead.
But Nesbitt played Tech’s final possession of the half, not looking full-speed, and then returned strong in the third quarter. He led the Jackets to touchdowns on their first two possessions of the second half (including a 77-yard scoring pass to Thomas). But the Dogs’ responded with touchdown and field-goal drives and held a 27-17 lead. If nothing else, it had turned into the game most expected.
But the end wasn’t what Tech players or fans expected. Last year was about getting attention. This year has been proving their worth. It can still be a great season. But not nearly as great it could have been.