The goal, cornerback Mario Butler said, was to keep from becoming the first Georgia Tech team since 1996 to be bowl-ineligible, and that mission was accomplished. And if the Jackets entered Saturday’s game with the ancillary aim of rendering Georgia overconfident for next week’s collision … well, they managed that, too.
Upcoming in Athens: The most impressive 5-6 team in the land — that’d be Georgia — will face the least imposing 6-5 aggregation. Tech won Saturday for the first time since Oct. 16 and needed all the aid and comfort Duke could supply, which was a lot. Some will point to this tepid regular season as a massive comedown from the high of the 2009 ACC championship, and in its way it has been. But this comedown could well have been a nosedive.
The Jackets didn’t have much except Joshua Nesbitt when this season commenced, and now that the indomitable quarterback has been lost they have next to nothing. Their offense mustered but two touchdowns — one of them coming on a pass completion, of which Tech likewise had two — against Duke, which ranked last in the ACC in total defense. The Tech defense, meanwhile, yielded 443 yards to an opponent conspicuously lacking a talent on the order of, say, A.J. Green.
The first half was vintage Tech 2010: A touchdown run overridden on a penalty; a fumbled Duke kickoff uncovered; a fumble lost inside the Duke 10; a failed fourth-down bid that led to a Duke field goal three seconds before halftime. “We had a chance to bury them early one,” said Paul Johnson, the Tech coach, “but we couldn’t get out of our own way.”
Tech trailed 13-6 at the half. It drove smartly enough on its first possession of the third quarter but was held to a field goal, whereupon Duke drove smartly and was within 14 yards of establishing an 11-point lead, whereupon Butler made two plays. The first resulted in a 6-yard loss. The second netted seven points. Butler broke on the only pass thrown by Brandon Connette, who is Duke’s running quarterback for a reason, and took it 85 yards to score.
“I just jumped it,” Butler said, speaking of the pass route. Then: “When I cut across [the field on his lung-bursting return], my hamstrings were about gone.”
Tech would build a 10-point lead. Being Tech, it came close to handing it back. Duke missed a tying field goal with 9:20 left. Three snaps later, Stephen Hill outfought a defender to snatch a Tevin Washington pass from the air. The 79-yard touchdown was the sort play of the departed Demaryius Thomas authored weekly last season but that Hill, considered the heir apparent, has seldom made.
“Coach Johnson wants playmaking receivers,” Hill said. “[I've] had a bad little year. But the year’s not over with.”
Said Johnson: “We didn’t accomplish a lot of the goals we set as a team, but our players know they’re going to play two more games.”
Tech’s next game will be of great local interest, and it’s hard to imagine a team that needed 3 1/2 quarters to put away Duke at Bobby Dodd Stadium going to Athens and actually winning. But say this about these Jackets: They’ve somehow won more than they’ve lost, the key word being “somehow.”
Jonathan Dwyer gained 1,395 yards and scored 14 rushing touchdowns in 2009; Anthony Allen, the new feature back, surpassed 1,000 yards with Saturday’s grinding performance but has scored only five times. Derrick Morgan had 12 1/2 sacks in 2009; the 2010 Tech team has 16. The aforementioned Thomas caught 46 passes for 1,154 yards and eight touchdowns in 2009; Hill’s numbers this season — 13 catches, 244 yards and three touchdowns.
When Nesbitt suffered a broken arm against Virginia Tech 2 1/2 weeks ago, the fear among Tech fans was that their team wouldn’t win again. On Saturday it won, if haltingly, and now the Jackets will play in a bowl, albeit an off-brand one. That’s actually pretty good value for a team almost devoid of playmakers, and you Jacket backers should try to hold that thought. Because what happens in Sanford Stadium might not be pleasant for the ol’ White and Gold.