Still Much To Play For

Nov. 9, 2010

By Matt Winkeljohn
Sting Daily

As one might imagine, Paul Johnson was more sullen in his Tuesday media get-together than usual, but not to where Georgia Tech’s head coach was despondent.

The power on the viewfinder on The Flats has dialed down. The view has not, however, gone black.

After enduring back-to-back defeats for the first time since Johnson became head coach at Tech, with a new quarterback about to make his first collegiate start, with a Miami squad fighting for its ACC life coming to town, and with the Yellow Jackets needing not only wins over Miami and Duke but a chain of events to occur for Tech to return to the ACC Championship game, the view has become more myopic.

Depending on the way you define a bunker mentality, the Jackets may be taking one on for the first time under Johnson.

At 5-4, 3-3 in the ACC, Tech’s bowl streak is in jeopardy at 13. The Jackets need to win at least one more game to become eligible to stretch that streak to 14.

Johnson’s not one to spend time in front of his players waxing about the big picture. He is, like most coaches, typically dialed in about the next game and only the next game.

But when a coach senses that his young men might be in a position to lose sight of the next game for sake of a big picture that has lost its pretty sunset, he’ll change his approach.

So he addressed his team Monday with a manner of message not heard round here in some time.

He mentioned almost in passing that he spoke with players about everything that is left to play for as part of an answer to a question otherwise scarcely related.

A few minutes later, I asked if he thought he needed to remind the Jackets of the lay of the land, if he sensed that their energy level might be verging on a drop off [in the wake of Thursday’s loss at Virginia Tech, a game in which the Jackets invested themselves more mightily than perhaps any all season only to lose on a late kickoff return].

Here’s what he said, in full:

“Well, you don’t ever know. You’re dealing with young people, and you never know. Part of my job as a coach is to point out what all we’ve got left to play for,” Johnson explained. “If you’re competitive, and you want to play, you’re going to play no matter what. That’s why you’re out there if you’re a competitor.

“This is new territory for them. This is new territory for me. I was telling somebody the other day, in 14 years as a head coach, this is the second time that — if it doesn’t happen — we won’t at least tie for championship of what we play for [in this case, the ACC’s Coastal division, which Tech tied for in 2008 only to lose the tiebreaker to Virginia Tech based on a head-to-head loss in Blacksburg, and won in `09].

“At Navy, we were independent, but I’m talking about the Commander in Chief Trophy, which was the number one goal of the team. We won the league all five years I was at [Georgia] Southern, and we won [the Commander in Chief Trophy] five of six years we were there, and we either tied or won [the Coastal division] the two years I’ve been here.

“So it’s new territory. I’m not worried about me getting ready to play because I’m competitive and I know what it’s about, but I think you have to point out to the guys that you’re still trying to play for bowl eligibility, a winning season, you’re playing for pride. It’s like a told them, revenge is a great motivator for those who care. They (Miami) spanked us pretty good last year. I hadn’t forgotten; I hope they haven’t.”

We’ll see if the Jackets care about the Hurricanes whipping them 33-17 last season in south Florida. The `Canes were plenty motivated in that one by having been whipped at Tech in ’08, when the Jackets put a 41-23 beat-down on Miami on national television.

The Jackets may play with great enthusiasm again, yet lose. They’re not over-talented to the point where they’re assured of victory simply by showing up with the most adrenaline – even if they make few mistakes. Tech will need some special plays, some schematic advantages, and perhaps a break or two to beat Miami.

On one score, they will be nearly equal.

As sophomore Tevin Washington makes his first collegiate start at quarterback, Miami’s Stephen Morris will make his second.

Morris was a tip-top prospect coming out of high school last year, and coach Randy Shannon’s goal this season was to red-shirt him.

A concussion suffered a couple weeks ago by starter Jacory Harris paired with uneven play by backup Spencer Whipple and a lack of faith in the third-string quarterback changed that plan.

Morris came off the bench in the game in which Harris was injured, and nearly rallied the `Canes from a 24-0 deficit at Virginia by throwing for two touchdowns and running for one. Last week against Maryland, he completed 18 of 30 passes for 286 yards and threw the game-winning touchdown pass in the final minute and Miami put up 504 yards of offense while overcoming a 17-6 halftime deficit.

If you follow this link (http://bleacherreport.com/articles/513453-um-quarterback-controversy), there is embedded video of him leading the game-winning drive last week.

“I think this quarterback is really going to be a good player,” Johnson said of Morris on Tuesday. “People might say, `Wow, you got a backup quarterback,’ and then you watch him play and . . . man, we might not have got the best of that bargain. He’s got a big arm, he’s mobile, and he can do some things. He was a very highly-recruited kid, one of the top quarterback recruits in the country.”

The `Canes (6-3, 4-2) are dealing with disappointments of their own in a season where they harbored aspirations of contending for a national championship.

There will be a great many moving parts Saturday in Bobby Dodd Stadium, where much of the 1990 national championship team roster will be feted.

It could be easy to lose the relevance of this game in the haze of what is no longer possible.

So, Johnson has taken somewhat unusual steps to try and prevent just that because, “I just know the way that college football is,” he said. “We’ve lost two games in a row, and everybody’s going to be telling you how dumb you are, and how bad you are, and you can’t do this and that.

“[Johnson told players], `You need to ride together, stick together. We’re going to have a new quarterback, so you need to stick together and rally around that guy.’ “

Wow. Hard game to get a feel for, huh? What are your thoughts? stingdaily@gmail.com.

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