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A Welcome Return

Aug. 30, 2014

By Jon Cooper
The Good Word

Every successful team has a game-breaker. That one guy who every time he touches the ball gets the crowd standing and the opposing coach a little moving closer to the defibrillator.

Jamal Golden is that game-breaker for Georgia Tech.

In 2012, as a sophomore, Golden showed how he could be a difference-maker, standing out as the best return man in the ACC and one of the best in the nation — he was the only player to rank in the top 10 in both kickoff-return (28.3 yards per return) and punt-return yardage (14.6 yards per return). In 2013, he was injured in Week Three against North Carolina, and missed the final 10 games of the season.

It was obvious how much he was missed — with no slight intended toward DeAndre Smelter, who did a superb job on returns (13.0 and 11.3).

On Saturday afternoon, in Georgia Tech’s 38-19 win over Wofford, Golden, granted a fifth year of eligibility, again showed how special he can be and how he can impact a game.

“It felt great to be back on the field,: said Golden. “As you could see, I’m a little rusty but I expected that coming into the first game. So hopefully we knocked that out and that doesn’t happen again, what happened this game. I feel pretty comfortable back there.”

What had happened was a punt in the second quarter that he misplayed, but somehow, fortunately for Tech, rolled out of bounds. What happened after that possession, resulting in a punt, proved even worse, making an already uncomfortable afternoon at Bobby Dodd Stadium even more uncomfortable.

The blazing heat and oppressive humidity appeared ready to get even more blazing and more oppressive when Georgia Tech, which struggled in the first half, allowed Wofford halfback Ray Smith to burst through the middle on a third-and-eight play from its own eight and outrun the entire Yellow Jackets team, going 92 yards for a touchdown.

The play figuratively took all the wind out of the Jackets sails, as the well-intended strategy of taking their final two timeouts to force the Terriers to punt from their end zone, backfired, and literally put them behind, 9-7.

Suddenly, the Terriers, looked less like than the pesky little dog for which the tiny Spartanburg, S.C., school (an enrollment around 1,600) is nicknamed — they’d managed 81 yards on their first 22 rushes, 3.7 yards per carry in the first half — and more closely resembled the rabid Cujo.

While the Jackets would get some momentum back when NT Shawn Green blocked the PAT the team needed a lift.

“They had the lead, so we needed some good field position,” Golden said. “I felt like that was the biggest return of the game at the time. We needed field position and we needed to take the lead back before we went into the half.”

Golden took the ensuing kickoff and did just that. Fielding the ball at the 10, he did what he does best, flipping the field and the game’s momentum.

He went left, found a seam and took the ball up the sideline to midfield. With 34 seconds remaining, the Jackets had a chance to take the lead into the locker room.

They’d cash in, going 37 yards in four plays and setting up Harrison Butker to hit the go-ahead, 30-yard field goal for a 10-9 halftime lead.

“That was very big,” said quarterback Justin Thomas. “It also allowed us to move the ball and get some points and put us up t the half. Without that return, who knows what could have happened? “

What happened was an amped up Thomas, who started 3-for-7, would settle down, hitting his final eight passes and finished the day 11-for-15 for 282 yards and two TDs, and Tech would eventually take home a victory.

They felt better, albeit not necessarily good, about the score at intermission nor did they really ever feel at ease all day, as Georgia Tech never really got great separation from the Terriers, who hung around all day, getting to within 17-12 late in the third, then, 24-19 with 9:49 remaining.

“You weren’t going to get away from them because, to their credit, they were hanging on to the ball and they were answering and making the next possession bigger and bigger,” said Head Coach Paul Johnson, of his team that actually lost the time of possession battle (31:26 to 28:34), something that happened only twice in 2013 — interestingly, once was in the 70-0 season-opening win vs. Elon.. They came in, they had a good plan, they executed very well.”

But, almost every time Wofford closed in the Jackets knew they could count on Golden to gain them field position. He finished the day with 140 yards on five kickoff returns (28.0 ypr) and 24 yards on a pair of punt returns. He even turned a punt, that Johnson thought he misplayed, playing it on the second bounce, into a breath-taking 28-yard return (although a block in the back penalty cut some of the yardage off it).

“The punt return there, late, was probably not a good decision,” Johnson said. “He made a play. Should have caught the ball in the air. You shouldn’t pick it up like that off the bounce. To his credit he made a play but that wasn’t a very good decision, really.”

But Johnson admitted that the return will be a great weapon down the road.

“Anytime you can change field position it’s going to be great,” he said. “Especially in a game like that. If you’ve got a short field, it’s going to be huge.”

It’s a huge weapon they’ll be glad to count on the rest of the way and a role Golden will gladly take on. Of course, he won’t be doing it alone.

“DeAndre and I are both great return men,” he said. “Not only us, we have Dennis Andrews, Broderick Snoddy, and the Austin Twins (Lance and Lawrence), they return, also. “That’s one of our keys, to win field position each game.”

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