The surprise wasn’t that Paul Johnson went for it on fourth-and-inches with Tampa on the line. The surprise was that, for half a minute, it seemed Paul Johnson wasn’t going for it on fourth-and-1 with Tampa on the line.
Down three points in overtime, ball nuzzling the 5: What else would PJ do? “If we can’t get half a yard,” he said, “we don’t deserve to win.”
First Georgia Tech faked everyone out. The Jackets lined up as if to run a play but did the ol’ draw-’em-offside bit to no avail. They called timeout and trotted to the sideline, and your first thought was, “PJ just chickened out.” But PJ doesn’t chicken out. He talks the talk and goes on fourth down.
“If you ask the kids to play to win,” he said, “you’ve got to play to win.”
He’d asked his quarterback what he thought, and Josh Nesbitt, who’s as bold as his coach, said: “I can make it.” And PJ said: “I know you can.” And then Nesbitt did, and one play later he was in the end zone and Tech had climbed a couple of rungs up the BCS standings and drawn within one win of the ACC title game. So you can’t say there was nothing at stake. But PJ’s way is to play to win no matter the consequences, no matter the history.
Four times Tech had gone on fourth down already, and four times it had failed. Nesbitt had fumbled the snap and slipped in the backfield and gotten stopped at the line and thrown a pass Anthony Allen dropped. One more slip and Tech would lose. But this time nobody slipped. This time Nesbitt ducked his head and got the yard.
Tech wobbled Saturday. It started nicely but began to commit penalties at a Georgia-esque rate, and a quick 10-point lead became a 17-10 halftime deficit. It could have been worse, but Dave Wommack’s underwhelming defenders stopped Wake Forest at the end of the first half and then limited the Deacs to one first down over the next 25 minutes.
And then, even after Wake tied it, the D made a stand near the end of regulation to force overtime, and once beyond 60 minutes, PJ and Nesbitt weren’t going to let the Jackets lose. “You just will your way to win,” Johnson would say, and that’s what happened here.
Derrick Morgan had three sacks, all essential. Jonathan Dwyer rushed for 189 yards, 59 coming on Tech’s first snap of the second half when he burst up the middle on a tweaked play for the tying touchdown. (”Something I saw,” said Johnson, the archduke of adjustments.) Wake being Wake, it would never simply slink away into the gathering dusk, but Tech matched the Deacs in heart and trumped them in skill and gall.
Into overtime. Tech held Wake to a field goal and the game was the Jackets’ to win or lose, which meant it was PJ’s and Nesbitt’s, and was there ever any doubt how it would end? Said Johnson: “I don’t think [his players] expected anything else [than going for it on fourth down]. Our defensive guys knew we were going for it.”
Said Dwyer: “Who wouldn’t want to play for a coach like that?”
Before the game, Johnson had given his men an impassioned speech. He told them “not to put the horse before the cart” and ponder what might be waiting down the road. This prompted someone to ask: Doesn’t the horse generally go before the cart?
“Horse before the cart, cart before the horse,” Johnson said. “Maybe that’s why we came out flat.”
No matter. It all worked out in the end. PJ dared and Nesbitt made it work and Tech’s cart and horse, in whichever order you prefer, drew another hundred miles closer to a title game in Tampa.