Athens – Give Paul Johnson a couple of months and he could take the remaining Rolling Stones and have those geezers rushing for 300 yards a game. Say what you will about the man, but he can coach the heck out of what he has. At issue Saturday night was whether he had enough.
There aren’t many coaches who can outdraw Johnson with the X’s and O’s, but the game, as we’re constantly reminded, isn’t played on a whiteboard. It’s played by real-life players. And Johnson’s Jackets lost to Georgia here Saturday not because they didn’t play hard or well but because in the end they just weren’t as skilled. Try as they might, and they tried mightily, they could never take the lead.
If anything, Saturday’s game showed us how clever Johnson is. He bled 512 yards out of an offense missing its best player. Tech held the ball for 38 minutes and 14 seconds, ran 92 plays to Georgia’s 48. And even at the end, when the Bulldogs appeared to have scored the clinching touchdown, they looked up and realized the old fox on the far sideline had one-upped them again.
As Johnson said, allowing Georgia to score was “the only way we could win the game.” And rather than alert its players to the possibility and advise them to get a first down and then fall on the ball, the Bulldog staff was caught unawares.
“We didn’t coach very good there,” Mark Richt said, speaking of Washaun Ealey’s 20-yard touchdown run with 1:29 remaining that put Georgia up eight points. “We got outcoached right there. It was good strategy by Coach Johnson. I thought when it happened, ‘He got us there. He got me.’ ”
It was that kind of night. Georgia won the game but left the distinct impression that it had gotten away with one. Johnson’s Jackets messed up early and often and still were one drive from winning the thing. (And then, one possession later, one drive from forcing overtime.)
Tech fizzled twice early — getting stopped on fourth-and-2 at the Georgia 19 after recovering a fumble on the opening kickoff, fumbling inside the 10 not five minutes later. And here came the Bulldogs, seizing a 14-point lead that at the game’s outset seemed like twice that much. But back came Tech, back on the strength of those two Johnson staples: A running game and a sheer stubbornness.
Even the hardiest of Jacket backers were dreading this strange game, in which the team with the lesser record entered favored by two touchdowns. Georgia clearly has better players than Tech, and without quarterback Joshua Nesbitt there are moments when it seems Tech has nothing at all. And yet the visitors kept fighting after falling behind by those two touchdowns, and soon it was apparent that the team lacking its best player wasn’t lacking in guts.
It was 14-all with one minute left in the first half, 21-all with a minute left in the third quarter. And this wasn’t because Tech was playing letter-perfect football; on the contrary, it had taken three Georgia turnovers and gotten nothing from them. And still the game was tied, the underdog having become the aggressor, the Bulldogs looking as confused as they had all season. (Which, given how the season had gone for Georgia, was saying something.)
Late in the third quarter Tech was driving to take the lead when Roddy Jones fumbled. Georgia nosed ahead on Washaun Ealey’s touchdown burst on fourth-and-goal. Then Tech fumbled again, quarterback Tevin Washington pitching to Jones as the Tech back was about to get splattered, and the resulting loose ball was taken for a touchdown by Georgia linebacker Justin Houston.
Another two-TD lead for the home side, this with barely a quarter to go. Surely there was no responding from this, not with the redoubtable Nesbitt a spectator with his broken arm. But doggone — no pun intended — if the Jackets didn’t surge to one touchdown and then, beggaring belief, another. With 4:56 remaining, the Jackets were within a point of even.
And Scott Blair, who hadn’t missed an extra point all season, missed the extra point. And surely that was that. But no. Georgia didn’t lose six times by its ability to deliver under pressure. The Bulldogs moved within field-goal range, chose to go for it on fourth-and-1 and saw Aaron Murray fumble the snap. At last Tech had its chance to take the lead.
And it couldn’t manage a first down. Tevin Washington was dropped for losses on first and second down, threw incomplete on third and fourth, and the Jackets had to be done, didn’t they? But Johnson pulled his let-’em-score trick and still his Jackets kept coming, flying across midfield with 45 seconds left. And then finally it was done, Washington delivering an interception.
Georgia had won and rendered itself bowl-eligible, but the lasting memory of this game won’t be of the Bulldogs and their escape: It will be of Johnson and his Jackets and how close they’d come with all their fumbling and without their No. 1 quarterback. It will be of the coach with the lesser players forcing the Bulldogs to the brink. If Paul Johnson can ever recruit similar talent on a consistent basis — admittedly, it’s a big if — Tech won’t wind up 6-6 again anytime soon.
“I wish I could have found a way to help them win the game,” Johnson said, speaking of his players, but he’d done all any coach could do. He’d put them in position. His undermanned team just couldn’t finish the drill.