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Jack In The Box: Not over until the whistle blew

Oct. 11, 2008

By Jack Wilkinson

That sweet, familiar sound you usually hear at game’s end? This one was deceiving. Traditionally, the tall steam whistle behind the West Stands blows its top to herald another Georgia Tech victory. But Saturday’s shrill was one long, loud, collective “Wheeewww!” of relief.

Or was that Paul Johnson’s post-game locker room diatribe?

“I really don’t know what to say,” the exasperated coach said softly after Tech’s 10-7 survival of Gardner-Webb. “It wasn’t very pretty. I did a very poor job of getting that football team ready to play because they did not show up. We were fortunate.”

And then Johnson, like the whistle, picked up steam.

“For the most part we went through the motions,” said the coach, who took no solace in Tech’s 5-1 record. Pick a rant. Any rant: “A comedy of errors…The option game was pretty much non-existent. And part of that was I don’t know if anyone got a read right when we tried to read the thing…Those five guys up front [the offensive line] got their lunch handed to them…Just a poorly prepared team.”

And the passing game? “Basically,” Johnson said, “it was just throwing moon shots and seeing if you could catch one.”

And how would you grade your performance, Calvin Booker was asked? “I’d give it a D. Across the board,” the third-string, fifth-year quarterback said after making his first career start. “The only reason it’s not an F is because we won, thanks to the defense.

“I give credit to Gardner-Webb. They played the way they wanted to play,” said Booker, just 3-for-7 passing, with an interception, for 120 yards — 79 coming on a busted screen pass to the right on which Booker instead dumped off to Jonathan Dwyer cutting back across the field and then up the left sideline for his first career touchdown reception. “We came out prepared to play, but we didn’t do that. That’s on me, as the senior quarterback. I didn’t do it. For everybody, from quarterbacks to A-backs to B-backs it’s really embarrassing.

“I’m glad he scored,” Booker said of Dwyer. “We won 10-7. If he hadn’t scored, I don’t know what would’ve happened.”

The inconceivable might well have happened. Gardner-Webb might have won. The Runnin’ Bulldogs of the Big South Conference were a schedule stop-gap measure after Army bought its way out of a home-and-home return game with Tech. Originally, the Jackets would’ve been at West Point Saturday, playing in scenic Michie Stadium, overlooking the Hudson River.

Instead, they found themselves in Bobby Dodd Stadium, overlooking the Bulldogs. Yet if the basketball Runnin’ Bulldogs could upset mighty Kentucky in Rupp Arena last season, why couldn’t these Bulldogs win in Atlanta?

Why? Because on a day when Tech’s top two quarterbacks watched from the sideline — starter Josh Nesbitt, in uniform but not fully fit to play, and backup Jaybo Shaw in warmups after getting dinged in the head in last week’s 27-0 shutout of Duke — the Jackets’ defense never doubted the day’s outcome. Never even considered an L.

“No, that thought doesn’t cross your mind,” said defensive end Michael Johnson, who had 4-1/2 tackles for losses, including 1-1/2 sacks. “I don’t think anyone here had that mindset.”

Still, Tech needed a last-second blocked field goal by sophomore Derrick Morgan, Johnson’s bookend defensive end. Morgan had four tackles for losses, including 2-1/2 sacks for minus-25 yards. And freshman placekicker Ryan Gates had just his second missed field goal of the season when Morgan deflected his 43-yard attempt at 0:03, causing it to flutter left and low and short.

When Booker took one last snap, he then took a knee and, as time expired, looked toward the heavens. As if to give thanks. On an afternoon when Tech managed season lows in rushing (79 yards, including just 27 for Dwyer on 16 carries) and total offense (199 yards), when Booker and redshirt freshman Bryce Dykes, the fourth-string quarterback, ran a most imperfect option offense, the Jackets survived. Barely.

What should have been a three-week, mid-season football fall break — a bye week, followed by Duke and Gardner-Webb — went down to the final whistle. And nearly into overtime. Think Johnson will have trouble getting his players’ attention for next week’s game at Clemson, the first of five straight ACC foes? Think he’ll forget what transpired Saturday?

“No, I don’t want to forget it,” Johnson said. “They’ll get plenty to look at Monday [on film]. I hope they’re embarrassed. I am. If not, we’re in trouble.”


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