Yellow Jackets Battle To The End

Nov. 5, 2010

By Matt Winkeljohn

Sting Daily

As difficult as it is to imagine Joshua Nesbitt’s Georgia Tech regular-season career being over because of a broken forearm, it’s that easy for me to imagine Paul Johnson and Bud Foster throwing darts, shooting pool and wrestling on a floor covered with peanut shells before laughing together about it afterward.

In the offseason.

Thursday night, Foster would not have helped Johnson out of a burning car, not even for money.

Georgia Tech has what Virginia Tech desperately wants – the ACC title – and the Hokies have something the Yellow Jackets and Johnson want – to be recognized as the best program in the conference.

G-Tech’s head man and offensive coordinator and Virginia Tech’s long-time defensive coordinator are both ridiculously smart, and beyond outstanding at practicing their respective crafts.

They’re also as competitive and prideful as any two coaches in college football. This is by far the best matchup in the ACC, and Thursday night might just have been the proof needed to substantiate the theory that V-Tech, not Clemson, is G-Tech’s chief rival in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Foster began wiring for Thursday night’s game against about a year ago, after the No. 5-ranked Hokies fell 28-23 to G-Tech in Atlanta.

The Hokies have finished among the nation’s top 12 defensively in six consecutive seasons, but on that delirious night in Bobby Dodd Stadium his boys were fake ducks in a shooting gallery in the second half, when the Jackets rushed for 272 yards on their way to the conference crown.

These teams are closely matched

In the offseason, days removed from back surgery and hobbled to where he literally put himself at risk by traveling, Foster made the trip to Iowa City, Iowa, to pick the brain of another fine defensive coordinator, Norm Parker. Parker, who too has endured serious health problems (he recently had a foot amputated because of diabetes-related conditions) engineered the Iowa defense that stonewalled G-Tech in the Orange Bowl.

That didn’t work. G-Tech absolutely flummoxed the Hokies on the Jackets’ first two possessions, driving 58 and 80 yards on 12 plays to take a 14-0 lead. How many times was Foster shown on ESPN shaking his head on the sideline in the first quarter? The Hokies are nowhere near as stout on the defensive line as Iowa; that was the key to the Hawkeyes’ success.

But the Hokies are resilient.

Tech did not lose because Nesbitt was absent in the second half, although his presence might have made the Jackets more competitive in the third quarter and early in the fourth when Tevin Washington was sorting through nerves and his teammates were adjusting to his nuances under center.

Tech had 195 yards of offense with Nesbitt under center, and 193 with Washington at the helm, most coming late as Washington started street balling.

The Yellow Jackets fell 28-21 because, while they played with the passion that Johnson had hoped he’d see more frequently this season (the first thing he told players in the locker room after the game was that he was incredibly proud of them), the V-Tech defense made effective adjustments, whether schematic, psychological or both, as the game wore on.

Plus, V-Tech did not lose its quarterback, and he’s pretty darned good. V-Tech is, like G-Tech, not superior on the lines of scrimmage. Also, the Jackets for 57 minutes more than neutralized the Hokies’ perceived advantage in special teams; G-Tech won special teams outright UNTIL David Wilson broke a 90-yard kickoff return for a touchdown that won the game.

Scott Blair’s kick was supposed to go right; it went down the middle. G-Tech utterly baffled the home team early, marching 59 and 80 yards on the first two possessions to take a 14-0 lead on two Nesbitt rushing touchdowns. But V-Tech was at home, which is generally worth a score or so in the minds of some football experts, and Foster and his players adjusted, calmed down or both over time. G-Tech’s next three possessions went three-and-out, fumble, interception, one play and halftime.

The interception Nesbitt threw at the goal line late in the first half hurt in more ways than one, more than Tyrod Taylor’s interception thrown in the end zone minutes earlier.

Nesbitt did not return after whacking his forearm trying to tackle V-Tech cornerback Davon Morgan. Worse, G-Tech’s chance to forge a two-score lead, to make it 21-7 or 17-7, went bye-bye.

What was worse, losing Nesbitt or failing to take a two-score lead just before halftime?

Anyway, defensive coordinator Al Groh’s unit gave up yards, but he did a hell of a job mixing changing coverages, pressures, and mixing spies on Taylor. All of this, and fantastic games by linebacker Julian Burnett and safety Mario Edwards (who transferred three years ago from V-Tech) kept G-Tech alive.

Washington’s first pass, in the second half, was a near beauty. But Stephen Hill dropped the long ball down the left sideline.

If there was a key sequence, it came late in the third quarter when G-Tech failed on fourth-and-2 as Richard Watson was jammed, and V-Tech soon thereafter converted when Taylor completed a 7-yard pass on fourth-and-3 from the G-Tech 37.

Starting B-back Anthony Allen (23 carries, 125 yards) took himself out of the game a couple plays earlier because he was tired after three straight runs, and Johnson said he thought that on that fourth-down play if Washington pulled the ball from Watson’s gut and tossed it, G-Tech might have scored.

Washington said he tried to pull the ball, but the rarely-used Watson held on tight. A few plays later, after a pass interference call against Mario Butler after he made the mistake of slipping beneath the receiver he was covering, Wilson scored on a 15-yard rocket shot around left end for a 14-14 tie with 13:21 left in the game. Before long, the Hokies led 21-14 with 6:34 left in the game.

Jackets battle like hell

Washington and the Jackets rallied.

He completed a 42-yard pass to Tyler Melton on G-Tech’s first play from scrimmage. Soon, on fourth-and-4, a trick play backfired yet worked.

Roddy Jones took a toss and was to pass, but pulled the ball down and rushed for 4.5 yards when he needed 4. Washington and the Jackets drove 90 yards in nine plays, and tied the game on Orwin Smith’s 9-yard run with 2:34 left in the game.

Next, Wilson turned on the turbo and V-Tech led 28-21, still with 2:23 to go.

Washington scrambled for 17 on third-and-17, and completed a 38-yard pass to the most under-utilized wide receiver on Tech’s roster, Kevin Cone. That moved the Jackets into Hokie land.

Several plays later, after the Jackets drew to the V-Tech 16-yard-line, they took a chance.

Wide receiver Tyler Melton appeared to talk Johnson into a special play on the sideline moments earlier, and when Washington threw back left corner for him, the ESPN announcers were proud to say that V-Tech cornerback Rashad Carmichael was beaten on a corner route only to recover as Melton drove inward and then bounced to that back corner.

Carmichael was not beaten.

The talented Hokie – whom the Jackets may have felt good about beating a few moments earlier – was playing outside leverage. He was to cover Melton outside the hash marks, and so when Melton burned toward the middle, he remained outside. It was an optical illusion. There was a safety awaiting Melton in the middle if he’d gone that way.

When Melton broke to the corner, Carmichael turned his hips and shoulders and when Washington’s pass was a tad – and just a tad – underthrown, Carmichael picked it to end the game.

Melton tried to break it up; his hand appeared to be about four inches from the deflection.

Regardless, an understaffed G-Tech (compare wideouts at G-Tech to V-Tech, and consider V-Tech’s ability to run three really, really solid RBs out there, not to mention Taylor) played valiantly against the best program in the ACC.

There’s no question that the Hokies are the cream of the ACC crop.

They overcame a 17-0 deficit at NC State – the second-best team in the ACC – to win, and overcame a 14-0 deficit Thursday night.

Paul Johnson wants the reputation that Virginia Tech has, but for a few more weeks he’ll hang onto the title of ACC champion, which is what V-Tech wants.

The Hokies won Thursday, barely, even though Foster lost his personal battle as G-Tech out-gained V-Tech 426 yards to 335 and the Jackets rushed for 346 yards. Can you imagine them chatting at an offseason coaches’ conferences, or an ACC confab? Or better yet, over beers in some sort of neutral pub?

Thoughts to stingdaily@gmail.com.

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