Nov. 21, 2008
By JACK WILKINSON
The band wore white. The team wore white. Most of the fans wore white. And when Georgia Tech first took the field, the Rambling Wreck burst through a banner that read: “We’ll White U Out.”
Whiteout? We don’t need no stinkin’ whiteout. Whiteout? Try wipeout.
“Wow, that was fun!” Paul Johnson said, beaming and basking in the afterglow of Tech’s 41-23 dismembering of Miami that was hardly that close. You’d beam, too, if your team had just accomplished what Johnson’s did:
Dominated the Hurricanes as no one else has this season. Clinched at least a share of first place in the ACC’s Coastal Division. Significantly enhanced Tech’s bowl possibilities. And kept alive its hopes for an ACC title. The Road to Tampa Bay, the site of this year’s ACC Championship Game, no longer seems like a bridge to nowhere. Not after a record-setting night like this.
The Jackets (8-3 overall, 5-3 ACC) rushed for 472 yards, their most ever in an ACC game. Those 472 yards — including 128 by Jonathan Dwyer, all in the first half — were the fifth-highest in Tech history and the most in a game since 1978, when Eddie Lee Ivery ran for a then-NCAA record of 356 yards at Air Force.
Tech had four backs rush for at least 75 yards, including A-back Roddy Jones (97 yards), quarterback Josh Nesbitt (93) and backup B-back Lucas Cox (78). Collectively, the Jackets averaged 8.4 yards per carry. Michael Johnson, the 6-foot-7 defensive end, enhanced his All-American candidacy with his first career interception and returned it 26 yards for Tech’s — and his — first touchdown.
And for the third time this season, Tech rebounded from defeat with a resounding victory.
“I’m awfully proud of our team the way we bounced back,” said Paul Johnson, whose Jackets gave their poorest performance of the season in a 28-7 loss at North Carolina 12 days earlier. “…I’m really proud of Josh Nesbitt. He probably wasn’t 100 per cent, but tonight he really grew as a quarterback. It wasn’t just physical ability. He was really dialed in.”
Nesbitt read and ran the option beautifully, hit 3-of-6 passes for 24 yards, sped 54 yards on an option keeper, and scored from the 1 to give Tech a 34-10 lead. When Cox rumbled 32 yards through a driveway-sized hole, it was 41-10 and all over but the arithmetic.
“That’s option football,” Miami coach Randy Shannon said of Tech’s dominance on the ground in its second 400-yard rushing game this season. “It’s assignment football, and when you don’t play assignment football, bad things happen.”
“When you read it right, you’re gonna have some nice plays,” Johnson said of his option offense and Nesbitt’s decision-making. “That’s the nature of the beast.”
The beast named Michael Johnson — “That 7-foot-8 guy” Gardner-Webb coach Steve Patton called him last month — made his presence known quickly, and decisively. Early in the second quarter, Miami’s Robert Marve tried to throw a third-down slant from his 27.
“Coach says get your hands down, stay off the cut block and get your hands up,” said Johnson, who did just that. He fought off the block of Miami left tackle Jason Fox, jumped, caught Marve’s not-so-Marvelous pass and returned it 26 yards for a touchdown that re-ignited the crowd of 49,335. It was 10-0, and when Dwyer raced 58 yards for the first of his two consecutive TDs, the rout was really on.
“That (final score) just shows how much Georgia Tech is for real,” the sophomore and ACC’s leading rusher said after his eighth 100-yard game of the season, one shy of Tech’s season record. “We wanted to show that we can really play.”
With anybody. Along with a 31-28 victory over Florida State, Georgia Tech has now beaten both Florida schools — the two teams the ACC envisioned as its glamour championship matchup when the ‘Canes joined the conference in 2004 — in the same season for the first time since 1975.
FSU and Miami (7-4, 4-3) still could meet in Tampa. And while Tech has taken the ACC Coastal lead, the Jackets are one of five — count ’em, five — teams in the division with three conference losses. And the Jackets still need several dominoes to fall, involving North Carolina, Virginia and Virginia Tech — all of whom beat Tech.
But on this night, there was no need to worry about “What ifs?” This night was magical, and pivotal. “Like a playoff game,” said Darryl Richard, the senior defensive tackle who nearly went to Miami and has now beaten the ‘Canes four straight years. “In this conference, the way teams play with a hot potato, there’s no telling what Saturday will bring. I’m gonna sit and watch.”
“It’s a bang,” Richard said of winning in his last game at Bobby Dodd Stadium. “Forty-one points, and we hold the opponent to 23? We [seniors] definitely thanked a lot of players for sending us out this way.
“Everyone really laughed at us, killing ourselves in the off-season,” he said. “Look at us now…Most of the fun’s in proving ’em wrong. It’s kinda laughable. People are gonna prognosticate. Now we have eight wins in the regular season.”
And perhaps a ninth next weekend at Georgia. And perhaps a bowl victory. And maybe another after a trip to Tampa? “I think we’ve earned it,” Dwyer said of the Coastal Division title. “I think we’ve proved we are (divisional champions). We came to this game ready to play. You could just see it in everybody’s eyes on the bus ride to the stadium. This game meant a lot for us and for the program. We wanted to make history.”
“Well, we’ve done all we can do tonight,” Johnson said. “It’s like I told our guys, when we wake up in the morning, we’ll be in first place, because we finished our games. We’re 5-3 and the best anybody else can do is 5-3. Who knows how it’s going to work out with all the tie-breakers, and everything involved? But I know this. At the end of the year, we’ll at least be co-champs, tri-champs, quad-champs. We’ll be something. Nobody’s going to have a better record. We might lose the tie-breaker, but we’ll have a piece of the championship in our division.”
And an outright division championship, Richard knows, if a certain scenario unfolds. “We need N.C. State to handle North Carolina,” he said. “If Clemson wants to play in a bowl game, they’ve gotta beat Virginia. Then Virginia’s gotta win in Blacksburg (over Virginia Tech). Then, Georgia Tech is gonna be in Tampa.”