Georgia Tech hadn’t been tested, so it decided to test itself. It watched North Carolina score three second-half touchdowns and override a 14-point deficit, and suddenly serious stuff had arisen. The nation’s No. 25 team was tied at home, 7:22 to play.
“We thought we’d try to make a game a little more exciting,” Paul Johnson would say afterward, half-smiling but not nearly laughing. That said …
Johnson mightn’t have enjoyed every detail of this game — the two turnovers, the missed field-goal attempt, the never-ending run of lousy special-teams play, the dropped touchdown pass by the otherwise ascendant Stephen Hill, even his own loss of fourth-and-1 nerve — but he had to be tickled by its outcome. A coach can’t know about his team until it’s forced to make plays for the express purpose of game-winning, and Johnson’s Jackets aced that exam.
Tied with 7:22 remaining, Tech led with 5:20 to go. Nice kickoff return, long Roddy Jones run down the sideline — shades of Sanford Stadium, November 2008 — and a Tevin Washington duck-in touchdown. No poor pitchouts or muffed catches here. Just two minutes of precision at the moment precision was required.
“I’m kind of glad it happened this way,” Hill said. “It shows the team it’s not going to be easy.”
Tech’s first three games had been varying degrees of days at the beach. It hadn’t trailed since the Independence Bowl. It hadn’t failed to lead 7-0 after its first snap. It was amassing silly numbers even by Johnson’s standards, but you knew full well that September wouldn’t pass without silliness yielding to cold reality. Reality arrived Saturday wearing powder blue.
North Carolina isn’t a great team, but it takes football seriously enough to have committed so many indiscretions it was impelled to vacate two years’ worth of victories. The Tar Heels seized the lead here, forcing Tech to react, and sure enough Tech scored 28 of the next 35 points. But then Al Groh’s defense, which had limited Carolina to 30 yards over the final 27 minutes of the first half, started to perform like the Tech D we’ve come to know and bemoan, and the usually roaring Tech offense wasn’t quite at high tide.
Which sounds strange, given that the Jackets finished with 35 points and 496 yards. But when you enter averaging 59.3 points and 675.3 yards, you’ve set an impossible standard. Matched finally against an opponent capable of punching back, Tech missed just enough chances to keep this close.
Said Johnson: “We’ll have to look at the tape and clean up the stuff we didn’t do great, and there’s a bunch of it.”
A bunch? Not really. But enough to render this the Jackets’ first close game of 2011. And even after the go-ahead-to-stay surge, Tech couldn’t run out the clock. Carolina got the ball and one final chance. Would Groh’s defenders go belly-up?
Nope. Tech halted the Heels before they could draw close enough to throw into the end zone. The defense incapable of making any plays last season made several this time — linebacker Jeremiah Attaochu had three sacks, including one on the game’s final snap — and that’s an upgrade.
“Thirty-five [points] is better than 28,” said Johnson, voicing a familiar and incontrovertible theme. “That’s what I was pleased with.”
There was, however, a single greater point: We’d seen how sleek Tech could look against token opposition, but against the Heels we saw it being forced to make plays — and then making them. No team scores 66 every given Saturday, and the rest of the schedule will resemble more of what we saw in Week 4 than in Weeks 1-3. This outcome should give the Jackets even deeper faith in themselves.
And there’s hay to be made in this conference. Nobody looks impregnable. The Jackets don’t play Florida State, and they’ll get Clemson and Virginia Tech here.
“Our goal is always to win the ACC championship,” Washington said, and a month ago those words might have sounded fanciful. Four victories later, this season bears the look of a real opportunity. Tech has positioned itself to do something, and that’s all you can reap from any September.
By Mark Bradley