Sept. 15, 2014
By Matt Winkeljohn
The Good Word
Whether it is true or not that all victories are not equal, Georgia Tech can definitely say that not all halves are alike. The Yellow Jackets are playing them as might Jekyll & Hyde.
Georgia Tech (3-0) will play Saturday at Virginia Tech (2-1), and if head coach Paul Johnson and his team want to start ACC action off on the right foot, the Jackets are going to have to better match their first- and second-half feats.
The Ramblin’ Wreck steamrolled their way to a 35-10 halftime lead over Georgia Southern last Saturday only for the Eagles to score touchdowns on their first four possessions of the second half to take a 38-35 lead.
That the Jackets won on Justin Thomas’ 13-yard touchdown pass to Deon Hill with 23 seconds left in the game was peachy, but the home team absorbed something of a sour satisfaction after having to pull out its first last-possession win since winning that way at Wake Forest in 2010.
What happened in Bobby Dodd Stadium a few days ago was part of a trend that the Jackets seek to reverse. Tech has yet to pair first- and second-half efforts in a game. In wins over Wofford and Tulane, the Jackets scuffled early and rolled late. Against the Eagles, it was the opposite.
Every game so far has been a tale of two halves.
“We’re undefeated, but we can’t put two halves together,” said safety Jamal Golden, who forced the GSU fumble that set up the Jackets’ game-winning drive. “The first two games we started off slow and then picked it up. This game was vice-versa. We started off pretty good, but played pretty bad toward the end.”
Johnson and the Jackets went into the Georgia Southern game seeking a faster start and with good reasons.
In the season opener against Wofford, Tech led 10-9 at halftime and that was something of an escape act. The Terriers took a 9-7 lead on a 92-yard run with 51 seconds left in the second quarter. The Jackets went ahead as time expired on Harrison Butker’s 30-yard field goal before trampling Wofford in the second half.
At Tulane, Tech trailed three different times in the first half before scoring the game’s final 28 points to win 38-21.
Against GSU, the Jackets scored touchdowns on their first five possessions, wracking up 377 yards of total offense on a whopping 41 plays and holding the ball for 20:33 of the first 28:55.
So, mission accomplished against the Eagles — but to queasy avail.
From there, the sleepwalking began. Tech’s first punt came shortly before halftime, and the Jackets punted to end their first four possessions of the second half while the Eagles’ offense flared to life as Tech’s defense went on sabbatical.
“We had our foot on their throats, we come in at half, and we let them come back and take the lead,” said senior B-back Zack Laskey.
That put a fine point on it.
When sophomore linebacker Paul Davis drew an unsportsmanlike penalty on GSU’s first possession of the second half as the Eagles appeared to be facing fourth-and-31 from their own 44, it gave the visitors life. Big life.
Mixed in and among all the Tech punts, the Eagles went about scoring touchdowns on drives of 75, 85, 83 and 94 yards to take the lead. In the third quarter alone, GSU out-gained Tech 228-40.
The Jackets relaxed, and it was the wrong time.
“Well, I think there’s a small margin for error when you lose focus,” Johnson said. “In the first half, we converted (six of eight) third downs, and in the second half we didn’t. I think when we look at the tape, we’ll see that some of it was bad decisions, some of it was getting behind the chains, and I think we lost our focus.”
Players seem to agree, which may be a sign that halftime adjustments – before each half – will be well received.
“Their guys came out in the second half with the will to win,” said senior linebacker Quayshawn Nealy. “It’s funny we have had a bad time starting, but [Saturday] we came out rocking. We got complacent, and those guys kept fighting. We weren’t focused . . . they came out ready to go, we were slacking and it showed.”
Rarely do the words focus, complacency, and intensity so often come from the mouths of victors with negative connotations. The nature of the win over Georgia Southern prompted plenty of mentions.
Hill said, “We got kind of complacent. We’ve got to do a better job of getting everybody up, keep the intensity level up. If we do that, we can be a lot better than we’ve been.”
From Laskey: “I kind of felt like we didn’t come out with the same kind of intensity. They wanted the game bad. We came out there, and they came out and kicked our butts.”
Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer is faced with somewhat similar issues.
One week after winning at Ohio State, the Hokies fell behind 21-7 last Saturday at home, rallied to tie the game in the waning minutes, and then lost 28-21 when East Carolina raced downfield in a matter of seconds.
As Thomas said, for the Jackets to have a realistic shot at beating Virginia Tech for the first time since 2009, “We have to put two halves together.”
Sorry for the clichéd thoughts, but perhaps in Tech’s first two games, the Jackets took their opponents for granted from the outset only to snap awake, and then after taking a big lead against GSU, the Jackets fell into a similar hole.
The good news is that, unlike the Hokies, the Jackets crawled out of their traps.
Golden offered a plan to avoid any more quicksand.
“Basically, you can’t get complacent. You’ve got to play the whole game like you’re down,” he said. “Using this game, you can tell that you can be beaten at any time and you’ve got to play a full game. If you only play 30 minutes, the other 30 minutes can bite you and you’ll be 3-1 instead of 4-0.”
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