Charlottesville, Va. – Even if the polls suggested otherwise, Georgia Tech was never the nation’s 12th-best team. It was a good team with a clever scheme and a bunch of guys who’d worked hard and coalesced to make the whole greater than the talent on hand. And then, in the season’s seventh game, the workers worked less hard and got what they deserved, which was beaten by an opponent that had won one ACC game since 2009.
Surely Mike London and his Virginia staff saw what was coming to Scott Stadium: A team that could win any track meet but not many wrestling matches. The Cavaliers, who’d lost to Southern Miss and beaten Idaho by a point in overtime, treated this as their game of arrival and, when Tech got done fiddling and flailing, it was. The No. 12 team got beat and deserved to get beat.
“It’s been coming,” said Paul Johnson, Tech’s obviously irked coach. “When you play with fire long enough, you get burned.”
Tech couldn’t put North Carolina State away in Raleigh two weeks ago and had stopped scoring against Maryland last week, and those were troubling signs. But collegiate players can be tough sells: If you’re winning, what difference does it make? For Tech, the winning stopped Saturday. A pedestrian offense amassed 407 yards against a unit supposedly coordinated by Al Groh, who recruited some of these Cavs. Tech’s own sleek offense couldn’t override a 10-point halftime deficit against an opponent that didn’t score again.
“We talked about it repeatedly,” Johnson said. “[Virginia's] backs were against the wall. We were going to get everything they’ve got.”
Message unheeded. The Jackets trailed 7-0 after six minutes and 14-0 with 6:20 gone. They’d been staggered, and they never fully recovered. Whenever Virginia needed to move, it shoved the Jackets backward. The Cavs rushed for the same number of yards (272) as Tech, and they did it with power. Said Johnson, speaking of Virginia’s repeated sorties around the flanks: “We never set the edge.”
Remember when, back over the summer, we suggested Tech might not have enough prime-time players to win the ACC Coastal? Here was a tutorial in the difference between big/strong and smallish/skilled.
Said linebacker Julian Burnett: “When they run the ball right at you and you can’t stop them, it’s frustrating.”
Say what you will about Johnson, but he’s far better with a lean and hungry team than with a bunch of fat cats. Heck, his whole system is built on wrong-footing bigger guys. He said he tried to impart both a warning and a challenge — “We talked in the pregame meeting about what an opportunity we had” — but this time his urgings moved no one.
Johnson again: “Sometimes you just get blocked and can’t block the other team.”
Some try to make every Tech loss a referendum on Johnson’s spread option, but this was no such thing. It was a pounding by a desperate team that hit harder and fought longer. LSU or Alabama or Oklahoma could have laughed off an early flurry by the likes of Virginia, but Tech is not LSU or Alabama or Oklahoma. On talent, Tech is scarcely better than Virginia.
The Jackets aren’t good enough to win, at least not repeatedly, at half-capacity. They’re a good team when doing the things they do well, but if you force them into a different game they’re far less. Virginia hogged the ball — it punted only twice — and nursed its lead, and with 5:58 the Jackets completed a fizzled series by punting to the Cavs, who wouldn’t give it back.
Johnson: “That’s the way everyone is going to play us … They were able to get ahead and in the end in worked.”
Burnett: “I wasn’t surprised [that Virginia sought to be the aggressor]. We just didn’t match it.”
If we’re going to criticize anything about Johnson’s Method after such a loss, it’s more a matter of philosophy: Johnson wants to do it his way — with a roster of middling recruits who’ll fight to the finish — but we saw Saturday what can happen if the middling recruits don’t fight as hard as they might. They get exposed as … middling.
Yes, that’s a bit harsh. Playing hard and well, Tech is a tough opponent for anybody anywhere, and the Jackets will have the chance to beat some big names over the next six weeks. But a sluggish Georgia Tech is just another team, and Saturday it was a loser to a program so starved for victory that its students swarmed the field.
By Mark Bradley