Nov. 29, 2008
By JACK WILKINSON
Athens — Outlined against a dank gray November sky, the four sportsmen crowed again. And again. And again. And why not? After what Georgia Tech had finally wrought here, after seven interminable years, after eating all-you-can-stomach crow for far too long, well, you’d crow, too.
With class, though. Not trash.
“Seven years has been WAY too long!” cried Roddy Jones, the freshman A-back-turned-aerialist who walked a sideline tightrope for 54 yards and put himself — and his team — right into Tech lore.
“Great job, baby! Way to go!” shouted Dan Radakovich, and the Georgia Tech athletic director wrapped an arm around the football coach he’d hired last December. The coach who’s made this a November to remember, and a team for all seasons. To which a beaming Paul Johnson replied, “We had `em all the way.”
“Had to take a piece of the hedge,” yelled Dominque Reese, the cornerback who, like dozens of his teammates, held aloft a keepsake sprig, surely suitable for framing. “Between the hedges, baby! History, baby!”
How historic? Let the resident Tech historian provide some prospective. “One of the truly great wins,” said Dr. Aaron King, the septuagenarian team dentist who should know. He’s cared for the Jackets’ cracked teeth since the days of Dodd. “It goes down in the history books.”
After seven consecutive losses to Georgia, after a frightening first-half in which Tech surrendered 271 yards passing to trail 28-12 at intermission, after the Dogs seemed in control, the Jackets rose up and said, “Enough. Seven is enough.” With Jones and Jonathan Dwyer each rushing for two touchdowns — including Dwyer’s 60-yarder to open the third quarter and Jones’ tippy-toe 54-yarder to give Tech a late, 10-point cushion –, Tech triumphed 45-42. A triumph, indeed, in every sense.
On an alternately rainy-drizzly-misty afternoon in Sanford Stadium, the Jackets’ near-drought in Georgia finally ended. Lake Lanier may still be far below its normal depth, but not Tech. Not anymore. The Drought, Georgia Tech’s celebrated eight-game winning streak over Georgia from 1949-56, remains intact in this Clean Old-Fashioned Hate rivalry.
And Georgia Tech, like Georgia, is 9-3. Which 9-3 record is more satisfying? You be the judge. You, Lucas Cox.
“We were picked to win two games, three games,” said the sophomore running back who scored Tech’s second touchdown. “We’ve done above and beyond what anyone expected. And we’re gonna improve from this, too.
“I was talking in the locker room to [James] Liipfert,” Cox said, “and Andrew Smith and A.J. Smith.” All three redshirt seniors. All three winless versus Georgia until Saturday. “They were almost in tears, they were so happy. Especially Liipfert. `Cause now he can say for the rest of his life that he beat Georgia.”
They all can: Morgan Burnett, the sensational sophomore rover who returned his seventh interception of the season 35 yards for Tech’s first touchdown and his first career TD. Dwyer, the sophomore A-list B-back who rushed for 144 yards, his ninth 100-yard game of the season to tie Tashard Choice’s school single-season record. Josh Nesbitt, who ran the option fumble-free on a wet day — and has there ever been a quarterback who was 1-for-6 passing for 19 yards yet was so crucial to a team’s success?
And, of course, Jones, the 5-foot-9 redshirt freshman from Stone Mountain who ran in Sanford Stadium as he did at Chamblee High: like the wind. For 214 yards on just 13 carries, joining Robert Lavette (202 in 1982) and Jerry Mays (207 in ’89) as the only Jackets to rush for more than 200 yards against the Dogs.
“Just kept my feet moving,” Jones — who had a 62-yard run earlier — said of his decisive 54-yard TD with 7:13 to play. “They teach you that from a young age, and that’s what I did.”
That, and this: “We’re making people believers” (in Johnson’s option offense). We like it when it fuels the fire.”
At halftime, however, Georgia appeared in command. This, after Matthew Stafford had already passed for 271 yards and three touchdowns to Mohamed Massaquoi to give the Dogs a 28-12 lead. Not that Paul Johnson was worried.
In the locker room, he recalled, “I just said, ‘Hey, it’s 60 minutes. Anybody who came over here and didn’t think it’s going to be that kind of game, don’t come back out.’ We talked about (how) we’re going to get the ball first and we’re going to go down and score.
“I didn’t know it’d be on one play,” Johnson said, smiling. “And we’d be right back in it.”
And the Jackets were, once Dwyer took a counter-option pitch, slipped a tackle and sped 60 yards down the right sideline. His 2-point run on the conversion cut it to 28-20.
And when Tech held, and then went 56 yards — all on the ground, the last eight by Jones to score –, and when Nesbitt ran a 2-point conversion quarterback draw, it was tied at 28. When Georgia’s Richard Samuel promptly fumbled the ensuing kickoff, Dwyer’s 23-yard run put Tech ahead for good.
Scott Blair’s field made it 38-28. Twice, Georgia closed within three points. Twice, Tech stood firm, and tall. And once Jones walked the line 54 yards into the end zone, and Nesbitt took a knee, the Jackets could finally scratch their seven-year itch.
As consolation prizes go, this one took the prize. Tech’s only disappointment? Virginia’s 17-14 loss at Virginia Tech, which gave the Hokies the ACC Coastal Division title. Georgia Tech also finished 5-3 in ACC play, but lost 20-17 to Virginia Tech. That puts the Hokies into next Saturday’s ACC Championship Game. That hardly dampened Georgia Tech’s joy. Coastal, shmoastal.
“It’s bittersweet to me, still,” Darryl Richard admitted. “I think we could’ve gone into Tampa and been victorious.” But for Richard, the senior defensive tackle, co-captain and a soon-to-be Tech graduate school grad, this damp November day was still all sweetness and light.
“This says, `Hey, you can compete. You don’t have to listen to these clowns who say it (the option offense) doesn’t work on this level, in the ACC,” Richard said. “You’re still gonna have naysayers. People will talk nonsense. But this is a team that can make a run in the next few years.”
He paused, sitting there with a enormous sprig of the hedges looped around his right ear like an earpiece and headphone. “We have guys that a lot of Division I football factories wouldn’t even look at,” Richard said. “And on the field, you don’t have to go to a football factory to have success. We just had success against one of the biggest football factories, picked No. 1 in the pre-season.”