The Great Escape

Sept. 14, 2014

By Jon Cooper
The Good Word

It’s so easy to cringe when hearing Coach-speak favorites like, “play a full 60 minutes” or “one play can change the whole game.”

Georgia Tech players won’t be cringing at either of those expressions the next time they come from Head Coach Paul Johnson’s lips. The Yellow Jackets’ inability to do the former while negatively doing the latter nearly cost them dearly, as they blew a 35-10 halftime lead and had to scratch out a late come-from-behind 42-38 win over Georgia Southern at Bobby Dodd Stadium.

“It was a heck of a game, a lot more exciting than it needed to be,” said Johnson. “But you have to give them credit. They fought back hard and they never quit and they played hard. In the end, we finally found a way to make a play on offense.”

“We won the game but in some ways I almost feel like we lost,” added B-Back Zach Laskey, who ran for a team- and career-high 137 yards and a touchdown and added two catches for 36 yards and another score. “We had our foot on their throats coming into the half and we let them come back and take the lead. When the defense was struggling I felt like the offense needed to step up and do some damage control.”

The game flipped the script of Tech’s first two games of the season, when the Jackets didn’t get things going until late in the second quarter, then dominated the second half. On Saturday, they were in high gear coming out of the gate before stalling out after intermission.

A-Back Charles Perkins broke right and got around the corner for a 63-yard run on the first play of the game to set the tone, as the Jacket ran for 199 yards in the first quarter, more yardage than the Eagles defense allowed in their entire first game at NC State. Quarterback Justin Thomas scored two plays later for a 7-0 lead. The defense built off that momentum and got a stop, sparking the Jackets to double the lead on the ensuing possession.

That was the pattern throughout the first half, as Tech scored on its first five possessions, with three of the drives better than 80 yards. Southern, meanwhile was stymied, going three-and-out on three drives and sustaining only one drive more than three plays, with that one resulting in a field goal (they hit on a three-play, 72-yard drive in the first quarter, with running back Matt Breita sprinting the final 69).

But the second half saw complete role-reversal.

The turning point came early in the third quarter and validated the idea that one play can change everything. With GSU facing third and eight at the Georgia Tech 33, the center snap sailed over quarterback Kevin Ellison’s head and bounded end over end back into Eagles territory. Ellison fell on the ball, but as he and the multiple pursuers got up, a late flag flew in. An unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on linebacker Paul Davis — Johnson didn’t see the foul and got an ambiguous explanation from officials — was called. Instead of the punt team coming on Southern’s offense had a first down at the Tech 41. Four plays later the Eagles cashed in, making the score 35-17. The avalanche was about to begin.

“It was a killer. It changed the whole game,” said Johnson. “It was 35-10. The way the thing had gone, we had scored touchdowns every time we had it. It was a killer. Then we let them go on in and score. Just because you gave them a first down doesn’t mean you have to let them go score. But that was a killer.”

The Jackets inability to respond defensively started a downward spiral that saw the Jackets offense sputter, punting on each of its next four possessions, while the defense could not get the Eagles off the field.

“We just didn’t play assignments, didn’t tackle, got pushed around,” said Johnson, adding wryly, “Other than that, we were pretty good.”

Tech was outgained 228-40 in the third quarter and outscored 20-0. The Eagles, meanwhile scored 28 unanswered points, taking it the distance on their first four second-half possessions to take a 38-35 lead early in the fourth and appeared ready to salt away the game, lining up first and 10 at the Jackets 24 with 4:37 to play.

Senior linebacker Quayshawn Nealy called it the worst second half he’s seen in his years at Georgia Tech, but made sure to give credit to Georgia Southern its due.

“We weren’t focused the second half. They came out ready to go, we came out slacking and it showed,” said Nealy, who led Georgia Tech with eight tackles (all solo). “Those guys came out the second half with the will to win. Normally we have a bad time starting good but we came out rocking and we got complacent and those guys kept fighting. The next thing you know they were back in the ball game and on top. We picked it up and made a big stop but we’ve got to get better.”

The stop came when fifth-year senior corner Jamal Golden made a play. Golden, whose assignment was on the edge playing the pitch, batted GSU back-up QB Favian Upshaw’s pitch, originally ruled an incomplete forward pass, (Upshaw was playing as Ellison could not continue, having hurt his shoulder). The ball was covered by DE KeShun Freeman. After replay reversed the incomplete call to a fumble, Tech had life, and, more important, the ball.

Thomas drove the Jackets 72 yards in 11 plays, using up 3:52. He’d complete the drive with a display of his tremendous athleticism. He avoided the rush of blitzing linebacker Edwin Jackson, scrambled right, then lofted a pass toward senior A-Back Deon Hill. Hill caught the pass, avoided the head-high swipe of late-arriving strong safety Antonio Glover and raced into the end zone.

Thomas’s escape act, and final completion in his 11-completion, four TD-pass day, allowed the Jackets to escape, as the defense easily fended off Southern’s final possession.

Tech’s escape act put the Jackets at 3-0, heading into their ACC opener next Saturday in Blacksburg, against Virginia Tech, which similarly struggled but was unable to escape its trap game, falling, 28-21, to East Carolina.

The Jackets know there is a lot of work to this week, especially in improving focus.

The body language was particularly distressing to Nealy.

“On the field, there were guys hanging their heads low,” he said. “When they make plays guys are up but when the do something bad, they hang their heads. Just seeing that on the field we have to do better than that. Stay focused and play through all four quarters.”

Golden felt the game could be used for another hackneyed expression — the wake-up call.

“Use this game to show that you can be beaten at any time. So you have to go in and you have to play a full game,” he said. “You can’t play a half. You have to play 60 minutes. You only play 30 minutes the other 30 minutes can bite you and you’ll be 3-1 instead of 4-0.

“We’re undefeated but we haven’t been playing good enough at all. We can’t put two halves together,” he added. “We started off really good and then we played pretty bad towards the end but we dug down and found a way to win the game. So we’re looking to carry over on the momentum of actually winning the game and looking to go up to Virginia Tech and play our best game.”

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