Three points on a rainy day when 87 were scored. Three points that halted a seven-year run of losing for one side and induced an abject reversal for the other. Three points that changed the state of college football in a state that lives for college football.
Georgia Tech beat Georgia 45-42 on Nov. 29, 2008, and never has one skinny victory assumed such heft. Tech is now the champion of the ACC Coastal Division and has been ensconced among the nation’s top 10 teams for a month. Georgia has had its worst season under Mark Richt and could be bound for Shreveport. You can argue that a different result 12 months ago wouldn’t have affected anything that has occurred in 2009, but you’d be wrong.
We stopped seeing Tech as hopeless during the first seven minutes of that famous third quarter. The Jackets went from 28-12 behind to 35-28 ahead in the time it took you to say, “There goes Dwyer!” And when it ended, Tech having won for the first time since George O’Leary was coaching against Jim Donnan, this much was clear: Mark Richt wasn’t coaching against Chan Gailey anymore.
Gailey tried six times against Richt, lost six times. In 2006 he even had the better team. Didn’t matter. There was something about Gailey that made you believe he could go 0-for-100 against the Bulldogs. Paul Johnson needed only one swing. Paul Johnson, as we now know, is different.
The Tech booster (and former co-captain under Bobby Dodd) Taz Anderson tells the story: Not long after Johnson was hired, he and Anderson were playing golf. The format was alternate shot. Johnson stood over the second shot on a par-5 hole. Anderson said, “Might want to lay up, Coach.” Johnson said, “Oh, I don’t know.” And knocked the darn thing on the green.
Just as faint heart never won fair maiden (really old saying), a timid Tech wasn’t going to unhorse Georgia. Tech stopped being timid the day Johnson strode — PJ doesn’t so much walk as he strides — through the door. Here’s a man secure enough to use an offense that supposedly ran its course decades ago, secure enough to run an actual play on any fourth-and-you-name-it. Johnson doesn’t care what you think of him. He’s so secure in himself and his methods that he needs no endorsement.
Nor, to hear him tell it, does he necessarily need to beat Georgia. “I’m not making it out to be the Super Bowl the way you guys are,” he said at his media briefing Tuesday. “I’m not going to let one game define our season.”
And then: “I don’t want to leave the impression that it’s not important. It is important. But I’m going to get Georgia Tech to the point where our program is bigger than one game.”
It helped that PJ won that one game on his first try. (”Been there, done that,” he said Tuesday.) Richt was no longer the scourge of the heated series but the guy who’d lost to the guy with the high school offense. Willie Martinez was the coordinator who couldn’t stop an offense that completed one pass (that on the game’s first snap). Georgia was no longer mighty, Tech no longer meek.
Had Georgia won on Nov. 29, 2008 — the 2009 Georgia media guide, perhaps inadvertently, lists the score of the game as 42-42 — the Bulldogs would have rounded off a disappointing season by at least reasserting their in-state dominance. Instead they laid themselves open to question, and in the succeeding Richt has seemed to have no answers. The guy who works at North and Techwood has hijacked every answer.
And now PJ and his program move from strength to strength, while Richt is under heavy pressure to change something, anything. Johnson’s team could play in the Orange Bowl. Richt’s just lost at home to Kentucky. Johnson’s team is the rising power, Richt’s the fading light. Three points did all that. Three points and one cocksure coach.