Dec. 2, 2016
Andy Demetra | Inside the Chart
It started across the ocean, ended between the hedges, and had plenty of drama along the way.
In between Dedrick Mills’ last-minute touchdown against Boston College in Dublin and Qua Searcy’s last-minute touchdown plunge against Georgia in Athens, Georgia Tech completed the second-largest turnaround in Power-5 football this year, going from 3-9 in 2015 to 8-4 in 2016.
It may not have felt like it at times. The Yellow Jackets’ play wasn’t always pretty and blowouts were scarce but their resilience showed in their record.
“I’ve never been a part of a season like this,” head coach Paul Johnson said on our radio network following the Georgia game.
He said it more out of bewilderment than awe. Even for its head coach, Tech was a hard team to figure out. Its defense struggled to get off the field: it ranks 126th in the nation in third-down defense. For most of the year, it ranged near the bottom of the ACC in sacks and takeaways – as a result, the Yellow Jackets averaged their fewest offensive plays since 1965.
Yet Georgia Tech also has 16 plays of 50 or more yards against FBS opponents, tied for the most in the country. Its yards per play average (6.60) isnearly identical to the Jackets’ 2014 Orange Bowl team (6.72), despite averaging 10 fewer points per game. Its defense forced eight turnovers in the last three games, all wins.
Tech’s style of play wasn’t always conducive to blowouts. But the Yellow Jackets made up for it with plenty of timely, gritty plays – and not always from the usual suspects, either.
There was Justin Thomas, gashing Duke for 459 total yards on October 29, the third-highest total in school history. Thomas enjoyed his most efficient year as a starter, even if it wasn’t always appreciated because of his low snap count.
There was Clinton Lynch, a stick of dynamite in his hands, averaging a whopping 17.3 yards per touch.
There was Matthew Jordan, making his first career start at Virginia Tech on November 12, one of five replacements on the first-string offense, guiding the Jackets to a 30-20 upset over the 14th-ranked Hokies.
There were offensive linemen Jahaziel Lee, Parker Braun and Kenny Cooper starting against Virginia Tech. Johnson couldn’t recall, in nearly four decades of coaching, having to start three true freshmen on his offensive line. Lee played defensive end in high school; Cooper was a defensive lineman who had never snapped the ball before arriving at Tech. All three thrived in the Yellow Jackets’ win.
There were Lance and Lawrence Austin, intercepting four passes over the last three games, turning ACC Defensive Back of the Week into a family business.
And there, fittingly, was Searcy, the redshirt sophomore from Barnesville, Ga. He burst onto the scene in Dublin with his 4th-and-19 catch that extended Georgia Tech’s game-winning touchdown drive (how would the narrative of Tech’s season have changed had they not converted that first down?). Through the first three weeks, Searcy was arguably the Jackets’ most consistent playmaker. His production then dropped off sharply, only to roar back over the final two games, capped off by his leap into immortality in Athens.
“It’s just a blessing. A great feeling,” Searcy told us afterwards.
And in so many ways, Searcy’s touchdown was a fitting ending to the 2016 season, where resilience and timely plays overcame the Yellow Jackets’ imperfections. They fought and came through when it mattered.
Paul Johnson, talking about his team’s play against Georgia, may have also hit on the perfect phrase to sum up the Yellow Jackets in 2016:
“We just keep playing,” he said.
That quality may not be easy to embrace but it’s still worthy of admiration. It led the Yellow Jackets to an 8-4 record, an impressive bounce-back from 2015, and a far better bowl game than what some thought possible a month ago.
So enjoy the ride, Tech fans. Later this month, the Yellow Jackets will do exactly what Johnson says they did best: keep playing.
Note: With the end of the football regular season and a long break for basketball on the horizon due to final exams, “Inside The Chart” will go on hiatus for the next few weeks. It will return in time for Georgia Tech’s bowl appearance later this month.