Making Their Own Breaks

Nov. 20, 2010

By Matt Winkeljohn
Sting Daily

To a great degree, good teams benefit more often from “breaks” than do less-than good teams, and generally good teams make most of their own breaks. Remember that.

This bit of genius is football’s derivative of the old question of which comes first, the chicken or the egg? In this case, the question would be . . . Do good teams get more breaks, or make more breaks?

For quite a while Saturday, Georgia Tech found egg on its face in the final home game of a frustrating season in large part because of breaks offered by the Yellow Jackets to the Blue Devils.

Then, Duke head coach David Cutcliffe and his staff out-thought themselves, and Tech’s Mario Butler showed up in a big, big way to quite likely steal the game. You might say he hi-jacked senior day.

You’ll see, too, that the Jackets made their great break in Bobby Dodd Stadium.

The Blue Devils were driving in the middle of the third quarter, having moved to the Tech 14-yard line with a chance to push their lead to 20-9, or 16-9 at worst (almost a given, as kicker Will Snyderwine at that point had made 18 consecutive field goals, and 20 of 21 on the season).

Then, Butler – the senior cornerback who’d never scored in his fine college career despite playing in 50 games and starting 38 straight — blitzed and blew up a reverse to drop Duke wide receiver Donovan Varner for a 6-yard loss. That was a precursor of what was to come, prompting Duke to pass next.

Duke quarterback Sean Renfree, who once upon a time made a verbal commitment to Tech only to back out when head coach Paul Johnson was hired, at that point had attempted 148 consecutive passes without throwing an interception.

Yet backup quarterback Brandon Connette, the far better runner of the two Duke QBs who alternated with Renfree often enough to rush four times for 32 yards Saturday — including a 20-yard touchdown run in the second quarter – was called upon to pass.

This was not genius of any kind. It was after all Renfree, not Connette, who entered the game second in the ACC in average passing yardage per game (255.5). It was Renfree who finished with 334 passing yards Saturday.

To use some great thoughts as underpinning, the late, great Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey once said, `Luck is the residue of design.”

Perhaps, then, bad luck is the residue of over-design.

Duke thought it might catch Tech off guard, but Butler stepped in front of Connette’s pass into the left flat and took off as if he had a rocket on his back. That rocket eventually ran low on fuel, and the darned thing was heavy. But Butler managed to dive into the left corner of the end zone with Connette having given chase for all 85 yards (and then some when you add in zigging and zagging).

“That was the longest I have run since high school,” Butler said. “I have so much more respect for wide receivers and running backs. It’s easy when you’re running without the ball, but when you’re running with the ball in your hands.

“The first 50 yards was easy. When I cut across, my hamstrings were about gone. There came a point in time where I wanted to look back and see whether there was anybody to pitch the ball to.”

Butler was upfield to make both plays because of halftime adjustments which called for Tech cornerbacks to move forward when Connette was at QB. Credit to defensive coordinator Al Groh and his staff.

Tech soon held Duke, and when on fourth down the Jackets decided not to all turn their backs and retreat to block before the kick, which earlier allowed Duke punter Alex King earlier to run 16 yards for a first-down on a fake late in the first half to set up a last-minute field goal, King punted.

Nine plays and 74 yards later, Tech led 23-13 on a 1-yard run by Tevin Washington. Although the Blue Devils would not quit fighting, the Jackets won the day.

They might’ve found a bit of un-designed luck, too, as Snyderwine later missed a couple field goals.

Butler, the senior who was a high school teammate of former Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow, and fellow senior Anthony Allen were the pivot points. A big assist goes to periodically embattled sophomore wide receiver Stephen Hill.

When he wrestled Duke redshirt freshman cornerback Ross Cockrell for the ball, and won to catch an underthrown ball, fate seemed finally on Tech’s side for good as he ran down the sideline to complete a 79-yard touchdown play for a 30-20 lead.

Remember, though, it was senior day.

Allen rushed 34 times for 165 yards, helping the Jackets grind the clock as he rushed 20 times for 78 second-half yards. Had his long touchdown run in the first half not been canceled out by Hill’s blocking-in-the-back penalty (dubious call, that one), Allen would’ve had that much better a day.

As it was, he now has 1,059 rushing yards in his senior season.

“We knew I was going to get the ball a lot today,” Allen said, alluding to Duke’s tendency to over-defend the pitch man against option offenses. “I was expecting to take a banging. I got 1,000 yards? I didn’t even know.”

That’s a little hard to believe.

But who knows, in a season where so many unpredictable swings have been folded into fall Saturdays (and one Thursday night), perhaps Allen didn’t know what had happened until he was told by reporters.

Butler, on the other hand, had a good idea Connette would pass.

“I came in a little bit more this week to study both quarterbacks [on tape] and particularly I wanted to study No. 18,” he said. “I know he runs a lot, but I knew he might throw. [Groh] called cover two, and . . . I knew I had safety help [if gambling for the pick didn’t work]. I jumped it, and it turned out my way.”

Yes it did, which helped put a bow on a package that was in a miserable first half shaping up to be a dud.

The first two quarters were not pretty, particularly when the Jackets fumbled the ball away in the red zone for the third time in two games, and Tech at no time overwhelmed Duke (3-8, 1-6 ACC).

But the right team won on senior day, and Bobby Dodd Stadium was closed down for the season on an uptick as Tech ended a three-game losing streak and became bowl eligible at the same time.

Perhaps the Jackets (6-5, 4-4) are not where they and you hoped they’d be at this point.

They’re in better shape, though, than next week’s opponent, with a chance to keep that team out of a bowl for the first time in 14 years.

Strange game, huh? I thought the Jackets toughed up in this one, and at times this season that has not been a trademark. If you agree, or even if you don’t, fire off your thoughts to stingdaily@gmail.com.

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