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A night -- and a season -- Tech won't forget

Jan. 1, 2009

By Jack Wilkinson

Should auld acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind? You bet. Not that Georgia Tech will easily forget this night. This New Year’s Eve nightmare.

So let’s make this short but bittersweet: LSU 38, Georgia Tech 3.

Happy New Year, and enjoy your black-eyed peas and collards.

“We would have liked to have won,” said a clearly disappointed Paul Johnson. “We would have liked to play better. But we didn’t.”

That said, the coach also said this: “I don’t think this affects our team moving forward. The 2008 season’s over. I look forward to 2009.”

And rightly, very rightly so. With much to look back on, and savor:
A 9-3 regular-season revival. A share of the ACC Coastal Division title. A No. 14 national ranking, and wins at Boston College and Clemson, victories over Florida State and Miami. And, of course, in Sanford Stadium, where the triumphant final score — Georgia Tech 45, Georgia 42 — disappeared from the scoreboard immediately after the final whistle.

“Everyone was doubting us from the start,” Derrick Morgan, the superb sophomore defensive end, said when asked if Tech’s turnaround season was still a success. “With nine wins and the win over Georgia, we feel that it was (successful).”

And yet…

Wasn’t this the Chick-fil-A Bowl? Wasn’t this college football’s most competitive bowl since the ACC-SEC matchup was established in 1992? Wasn’t it just a month ago that there was such great rejoicing in Athens and impromptu pruning of the hedges?

“We have to give LSU a lot of credit,” Morgan Burnett, Tech’s second-team All-ACC sophomore safety. “They came out to play and looked like a defending national champion team.”

That was then. This was now: LSU, after winning its second national title in five seasons, was just 7-5 this fall. After losing three of its last four games, LSU had nothing to lose and played like it. Coached like it, too. At times, to excess.

“This game was about us,” said Les Miles, the Tigers’ audacious coach. “It was about a commitment by a team that didn’t want to lose again. They didn’t like the taste.”

Neither did Tech when LSU, clinging to a 38-3 lead early in the fourth quarter, lined up to punt on 4th-and-5 at its 46. Instead, punter Brady Palfrey completed a 21-yard pass for a first down.

“That stuff usually comes back to get you,” Paul Johnson said. Then, sarcastically: “It was a nice fake, it worked.” It also prompted the briefest of coachly handshakes at game’s end.

And also this explanation from Miles, who managed to keep a straight face: “We wanted to use the clock. I didn’t want to give the ball back to them. As I recall, Georgia was up 28-12 in the second half. We didn’t want to give them the chance to come back.”

Your thoughts, Michael Johnson? “Some guys were mad, thought it was classless,” said Tech’s All-American senior defensive end. “But I’m a competitor just like he is and I guess I would have done the same thing. When there’s blood in the water, the sharks come out and he was sending the sharks.”

By then, Tech had long been picked clean. LSU, behind freshman quarterback Jordan Jefferson, quickly scored on its opening possession. Charles Scott strode 2 yards untouched, the first of his three first-half touchdowns that tied a Chick-fil-A Bowl record.

After Scott’s second TD — which followed Scott Blair’s field goal for Tech’s only points of the night –, LSU successfully recovered an on-side kick, the first team to do so all year against Tech. And the onslaught was on.

LSU’s 28 second-quarter points were the most in any quarter against Tech since Nov. 13, 1999, when Clemson scored 28 in the second quarter. “In the second quarter, we just broke down and had a lot of missed assignments,” Burnett said. “We have a lot of work to do this off-season.”

The final indignity came with less than three minutes left. On 4th-and-1 at the LSU 10, quarterback Josh Nesbitt fumbled away Tech’s last chance at a touchdown. Not since Nov. 1, 2007, in a 27-3 Thursday night loss at Bobby Dodd Stadium, had the Jackets been held without a TD. Their 35-point margin of loss and 38 points surrendered were the most by Tech since a 51-7 loss at Virginia Tech on Sept. 24, 2005. Yet despite all this, despite a fourth consecutive bowl defeat and now 0-4 all time in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, Tech finished 9-4. It’s the ninth-most season wins in the Institute’s history. If Virginia Tech loses to Cincinnati in the Orange Bowl, no ACC team will have more victories than the Jackets.

If only New Year’s Eve hadn’t been so hellish. After a spectacular 2008 turnaround, it will be awhile before this long night is forgotten. This daze of auld lang syne.

But as Derrick Morgan said, “We will take this as motivation going into the off-season. And our main goal is to take this program to the next level.”


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