Notwithstanding that the season opener came against a punching bag, and that Georgia Tech made the decision to hold the game on a Thursday night, without the benefits of national television (or national TV dollars), it was a perfect evening for the Jackets.
They were just good enough to make the fan base feel hopeful and curious about this season.
They were just flawed enough to give Paul Johnson a reason to spend the next several days telling his players how disgusted he was.
That’s the kind of balance you’re looking for.
Coming off a miserable 6-7 season and an offseason that included the NCAA stripping the program of its ACC title, the Jackets blew doors off in the 2011 opener. They led Western Carolina 28-0 in the first quarter, 42-21 at halftime, 56-21 after three quarters and won 63-21.
It wasn’t all pretty. An excess of thumbs remained in evidence. The Jackets had four fumbles (two lost) in the first half. (They led the nation last season with 20 lost fumbles). They had a field-goal attempt blocked and returned for a touchdown, and fumbled a punt return, leading to another score.
But the highs fairly eclipsed the lows.
Especially this one: They passed.
Remember the forward pass? The first legal one in American football took place in 1906. In the 105 years since, it’s believed Paul Johnson’s run-dominated option had accumulated 17 passes total.
OK, slight exaggeration. By not much.
Tech quarterback Tevin Washington and Synjyn Days combined to throw for 365 yards and three touchdowns on 11-of-16 passing. That included plays of 82 (touchdown), 77 (touchdown) and 66 yards.
“We’re going to have to throw the ball a little bit more [this season],” Johnson said. “We’re so young on the offensive line. The kids have worked hard this summer, and we’ve gotten a little better at it. The protection has gotten a little better.”
It was 28-0 less than 12 minutes (and four offensive possessions) into the game. Washington and Days already had combined for more passing yards (148) than Tech had in any game all last season. By halftime, they had almost as many net passing yards (260) as any Jackets team has had in the Johnson era (266). Johnson was channeling his inner Sid Gillman.
Given the college football landscape, maybe he’s just plotting to move the Jackets into the Big 12.
Some of what happened could be attributed to the opponent. Western Carolina is manna for the ACC. Its all-time record against the conference: 0-27. But it was about more than that.
Johnson, while he always will be a run first (and second, and third …) coach, is determined to elevate Tech’s passing game to somewhere north of humiliating. The Jackets ranked 119th out of 120 teams last season — just one popgun ahead of Army at 83.9 yards per game.
Less than five minutes into Thursday’s game, Washington tossed a safe sideline pass to Stephen Hill, who turned up field, stiff-armed a Western Carolina defender and blasted off for an 82-yard touchdown. Later in the quarter, Days completed a short pass over the middle to Tyler Melton, who similarly knocked away a defender and ran up field for a 66-yard play before being caught at the Catamounts’ 7-yard line.
It will be interesting to see how much Johnson tries to carry over this attack into next week’s game at Middle Tennessee State. At some point, Tech fans might even start paying attention. Bobby Dodd Stadium was only about two-thirds full. The Jackets made the unusual decision to play this game on a Thursday night, even though there was no ESPN money as an incentive. The online feed on ESPN3.com didn’t even net Dan Radakovich a Chris Berman bobblehead doll.
Tech had its reasons. Radakovich wanted to work in a home night game early in the season, and there weren’t any other certain options. There also was a concern that students might flee campus during the holiday weekend, hurting Saturday’s potential attendance. Johnson also liked the idea of having two extra days for fixes and adjustments between Games 1 and 2.
There are things to fix. Strangely enough, the passing isn’t one of them.
By Jeff Schultz