A season going wrong has started to see almost everything go right. Georgia Tech can do no worse than tie for the Coastal Division title, and it mightn’t have to share. “We still have all our goals on the board,” quarterback Tevin Washington said Saturday, and if you don’t count winning the national championship, he’s absolutely correct.
Tech can play for the ACC title on Dec. 1 if Miami loses at Duke next week or if the Hurricanes, owing to pending NCAA sanctions, recuse themselves from postseason play. Even if Tech doesn’t land in the conference championship game, it knows now it will grace some brand of bowl. Six weeks ago, none of this was a certainty. Six weeks ago, these Yellow Jackets could have been staring at 4-8.
But now, having beaten Duke 42-24 on Saturday, they’re above .500 for the first time since Sept. 22, and they’re headed for Athens next week on what you’d have to call a high. It would be a massive upset if the Jackets unhorsed mighty Georgia in Sanford Stadium, but it’s something of a upset that this team is bowl-eligible.
“The way the season started, everyone wrote us off,” coach Paul Johnson said. “I’m proud of these guys.”
This isn’t the best Tech team Johnson has had, but it’s the only one that began a season 2-4 and saw its defensive coordinator canned at the midpoint. It’s hard to know exactly how much the Jackets have improved since that stumbling start — the schedule has softened, which never hurts — but it’s clear they haven’t quit on their coach or themselves. In mid-October, nobody knew if a reeling Tech would stand up or fall flat.
“Things just kind of worked out for us,” said Washington, a senior who played his final game at Bobby Dodd Stadium, passing for three touchdowns and running for a fourth.
Said Ray Beno, an offensive tackle who made the game’s biggest reception (!!!): “The first half of the season, things didn’t go our way.”
Thus has been Tech football 2012. Nothing went right at the start — overtime losses to Coastal Division opposition, the egregious non-performance against Middle Tennessee — but a new wind seems to have positioned itself at the Jackets’ back. It’s true what they say about luck being the residue of design, but sometimes luck is so flat-out hilarious that it can only be described as … luck.
Back to Beno: On third-and-8 on the opening series of a second half of a game that hadn’t (and wouldn’t) see many punts, the left tackle was supposed to block Duke’s right cornerback. Alas, Beno failed to reach his target. “A missed assignment on my part,” he would say.
With nothing else to do, Beno drifted into the flat, where Washington’s pass arrived high and bounced off wideout Chris Jackson. Whereupon Beno seized the carom and tucked the ball under his arm and ran, miracle of miracles, in the proper direction. (Students of Tech lore will know this isn’t always a given. Playing against the Jackets in the 1929 Rose Bowl, a California center named Roy Riegels gathered up a fumble and ran 69 yards the wrong way.)
Said Beno, who allowed that he had never carried the ball in a game in his life: “Either way, I was going to some end zone.”
Ray “Right Way” Beno not only got his bearings, but gained the requisite yardage for a fairly essential first down. Duly energized, Tech would score the touchdown that built, for the first time all day, a double-digit lead. “It was huge,” Johnson said, speaking of Beno’s conversion. “Sometimes you need something like that.”
Let’s not go crazy here. Being 6-5 and alone atop, if only for the moment, the ACC Coastal isn’t to be confused with winning the SEC West. Even Johnson conceded as much. “Did the season turn out the way we wanted?” he said. “Not to this point.”
But credit this coach and these Jackets for keeping at it when it wasn’t clear that keeping at it would yield much of anything. “It’s not in my nature to give up,” Johnson said, and apparently it’s not in these players’ nature, either.
The guess here is that perseverance will have a reward. The guess here is that, if it ties Tech for first, Miami will indeed step aside and leave the Coastal Division title to the Jackets. And who’s to say that wouldn’t be the right result? Who’s to say, as of late November, Georgia Tech isn’t the best of a motley Coastal crew?
Nobody will be picking Tech to win in Athens, or in Charlotte against Florida State if it comes to that, or maybe even in the Orange Bowl. So what? As Johnson said, speaking of bowls: “Our goal coming into this season was to win a bowl, and you’ve got to get into one to win one.”
Six weeks ago, Tech was going nowhere. Today the Jackets know they’ll have somewhere to go beyond Athens, and possibly somewhere very nice.
Further reading: Tevin says farewell, Tech plays D and Johnson warns Miami.
By Mark Bradley