Were Georgia Tech outrageously lucky, all its fans would be as circumspect as Dave Miller of Atlanta. Miller, a 1977 Tech grad, sat above the South end zone as Middle Tennessee was driving to Points No. 43-49 on Saturday, whereupon he rose without ceremony and moved toward the exit.
“We’re just young,” Miller said. “We had some injuries on defense. And Middle Tennessee is a good team.”
Miller’s summation: “We’ll get better.”
Not 20 feet away, another Tech fan watched the same game end and drew a different conclusion. “This was ugly,” said Jerry Kenney, also of Atlanta. “No pass rush, no tackling. I’m sure Clemson [Tech's next opponent] will be licking its chops.”
Kenney was asked if this had just been a bad day for the home team. “It’s not one bad day,” he said. “It’s two bad days in the week [the first being the overtime loss to Miami], and hope is going out the window.”
Here we offer the boilerplate disclaimer: In sports, things are rarely as bad (or as good, for that matter) as they seem. Indeed, that’s a pet phrase of Paul Johnson’s. That said …
Favored by 27 points, Paul Johnson’s team lost to Middle Tennessee. By 21. At home.
“Probably the worst,” Johnson said, speaking of losses his teams have suffered. But this coach only arrived in December 2007, and this was the worst defeat Georgia Tech has known since Sept. 17, 1983, when Bill Curry’s Jackets lost to Furman 17-14. (Three years later, another Curry team would be tied by the Paladins.)
Yes, Middle Tennessee is a Sun Belt team, and yes, the Sun Belt is an FBS conference. But still: On Aug. 30, the Blue Raiders opened their season by losing at home to McNeese State.
“Embarrassing,” Johnson said. “I don’t think there’s any other way to describe it.”
Chan Gailey’s teams were infamous for alternating stunning victories and stump-the-band losses, but Gailey never lost to Middle Tennessee. (Did lose to Duke, though.) Heck, even Bill Lewis — known around Tech as He Whose Name Must Never Be Mentioned — never lost one like this. (Did lose to Duke, though.)
It would have been bad enough to lose to Middle by a point on a 65-yard field goal that glanced off a pigeon and bounced through the uprights. But Tech lost to Middle on a day when it led the 27-point underdog for all of five minutes, nine seconds. A week after yielding 42 points and 609 yards to Miami, the Jackets were gashed for 49 and 510 by the Blue Raiders.
Said Johnson: “As bad a game tackling as I’ve ever seen.”
Said linebacker Quayshawn Nealy: “In the first half we missed 25 tackles.”
Johnson again: “It was like we were running in mud.”
Tech has played five games, losing three. It already has lost twice at home, marking the first time the Jackets have lost on consecutive weekends at historic Grant Field/Bobby Dodd Stadium since 1988, which was Bobby Ross’ second season. And now we have to ask What This All Means for this abashed coach and this humbled program.
Check the schedule, and you’ll see more than a handful of winnable games remaining. But Miami looked winnable, and Middle Tennessee was deemed a given. By losing both, Tech has fallen to 2-3 with games at Clemson and Georgia to come. By losing both and looking helpless on defense, it makes us wonder if Tech has either the scheme or the personnel necessary to prosper in the ACC, a conference it ruled not so long ago.
Will defensive coordinator Al Groh be in place tomorrow? (For this game, he was moved upstairs to the press box, and those 49 points and 510 yards suggest that perspective isn’t the issue.) Middle’s first five touchdown drives spanned 75, 78, 88, 68 and 75 yards, and here we have to pause to ponder the first part of the sentence.
Middle’s first five touchdown drives. The first five of seven. On the road. On a day when it was a four-touchdown underdog. Against an opponent from a Big Six conference that has graced a bowl for 16 seasons running and was the ACC champ (since vacated) in 2009.
Whatever was working for this program works no longer. Johnson’s prized offense can’t score enough to override his defense, which looked stout at Virginia Tech on Labor Day night but has fallen to pieces. And the excuse made after the Miami game — that Georgia Tech was two plays from being 4-0 — no longer holds currency. There are no excuses when you lose by 21 points at home to Middle Tennessee.
Said Jerry Kenney, the Tech fan: “There was a basketball player named Micheal Ray Richardson, and he once said, ‘The ship be sinking.’ ” He nodded toward the field.
By Mark Bradley