On its face, it wasn’t a terrible loss. Georgia Tech came within one unmade play of upsetting the Coastal Division favorite in a charged and daunting setting, and the Coastal favorite needed overtime to prevail. All of which made it …
A terrible loss.
With so much to gain on Labor Day night, Georgia Tech threw it away in the time it takes to say, “No way Virginia Tech can score in 44 seconds.” Had the Jackets won, they’d have stamped themselves as the new Coastal favorite. Had they won, they’d have been ranked in the Top 25. Had they won, we’d have no real reason to wonder if the best days of Paul Johnson have come and gone. But they lost, and now we do.
This isn’t to suggest Johnson coached a terrible game. His team was positioned to win with 13 seconds left in regulation, but the Hokies converted on fourth-and-4, same as Utah had converted on fourth-and-14 in the Sun Bowl. Two games running, Georgia Tech has been one play from victory. Two games running, it has lost in OT.
Here we return to concept of plays, made and unmade. Georgia Tech has come to have too few of the former, too many of the latter. It’s not so much a question of scheme as manpower. Johnson and Al Groh can draw pretty X’s and O’s until the cows come home, but if their men don’t block and tackle and throw and catch, it matters not one whit.
“I’m proud of the defense,” said cornerback Rod Sweeting, beaten on a fourth-quarter touchdown. “We’ve got to finish.”
But that’s what all narrow losers say. The lot of the gallant foil is to make most every play but the winning one.
Of the third-down play that became the killing overtime interception, Johnson said: “It was the same pattern we scored on [in the final minute of regulation]. I didn’t see anybody open.”
Of Tevin Washington’s 10 completions, not one was taken by a Tech wide receiver. The Jackets managed only 288 yards on offense, and those yards came grudgingly. Their longest gain was a 22-yard Washington scramble. The longest run by a B-back, supposedly the star position in Johnson’s offense, was eight yards. The longest run by an A-back was 13 yards.
After Tennessee beat North Carolina State last weekend, Vols coach Derek Dooley noted that the biggest determinants of a game’s outcome are turnovers and big plays. Georgia Tech made only one turnover against a good defense (and that in overtime). Still it lost because a defense that played mostly well didn’t force a single turnover and because Johnson’s offense — at least against those opponents who are both skilled and drilled — has lost the capacity to hit home runs.
The offense hasn’t changed from the high times of 2008 and 2009, but the players have. We note yet again: There’s no B-back as good as Jonathan Dwyer, no wide receiver as good as Demaryius Thomas, no quarterback — unless Vad Lee pans out — as good as Joshua Nesbitt. Neither is there a defensive force to match Derrick Morgan. And no, none of those big-timers was signed by this coach.
Asked what he said to Washington after the overtime interception, Johnson said: “Nothing.” Then: “What do you want me to say?”
Oh, maybe that Washington tries very hard and very nearly won a huge game, but in the end he tried to throw the ball away and threw it to the wrong team? That Washington is an OK college quarterback but no Nesbitt? That Tech has become a team of great ambition but modest upside? That Johnson’s program will be stuck on eight, maybe nine, wins until it recruits better?
As rousing as this effort was, the result was even more sobering. Georgia Tech had every chance to take a giant step forward but tripped over its limitations. Yes, there’s still a chance the Jackets can win their division, but that will require much luck. (Virginia Tech has to lose two ACC games, and Georgia Tech would have to run the league table.) And to be frank, GT’s luck seems to have taken a hike.
There was a time when this team and this coach won these games — at Georgia in 2008, at Florida State in 2009, against Clemson twice in ‘09. The spirit is still willing, but the flesh is demonstrably weaker.
“There’s absolutely nothing we can do [now] except play football,” defensive end Izaan Cross said late Monday night, but the feeling persisted that Georgia Tech can play its best football and it won’t be good enough to claim another ACC title.
A championship team would have beaten Virginia Tech. The Jackets could only come excruciatingly close. It is, sad to say, what they’ve come to do.
By Mark Bradley