Dec. 28, 2010
By Matt Winkeljohn
Some concerns were laid to rest early and often Monday in Shreveport, La., where Georgia Tech’s passion made it clear that the Yellow Jackets were not merely going through the proverbial motions.
No, the facts that their season had been a 6-6 disappointment and they were in the Independence Bowl did not prompt listlessness. Tech’s effort level should’ve made fans proud. This goes in the good column.
The absence of four players with problematic academicals and another three who were probated for the first half after missing a Shreveport curfew didn’t appear to impact the game, either. Plus two.
Problem was, other problems that Jacket nation may wish dead and buried instead rose like bony hands from a grave. The Jackets did not go gently into the night, but had they a mirror with which to watch themselves, the images in it might’ve frightened them so as to make them faint.
To use a golf metric, the Jackets played to their handicap; they were what they’ve been. You get to the Independence Bowl by playing a certain way, and Tech did in a 14-7 loss to Air Force.
Without going into play-by-play, this comment by head coach Paul Johnson after the game should summarize in the event you didn’t see the game:
“We started the second half and we put together a great drive and then we fumbled the ball on the -yard line. Then we hold them, fumble again, go out and hold them. Then fumble again. It is hard to overcome all of those mistakes.”
“It is very disappointing.”
Worse, one might argue, was the predictability of it all.
The most frequent post-loss rationalization in football starts like this: “If not for . . . “
But Tech’s four turnovers were no fluke; they were reflective of the Jackets’ awkward essence over the second half of the season, which is to say no aberration. Here’s more frustration, wrapped in small silver and gold linings: If this were a game where the winner were determined by whoever played better offense, Tech would have won. If playing the best defense determined the winner, Tech would have won. There are more parts to the game, though, and they include taking care of the ball (and taking it away, which Tech did not), at least breaking even in special teams, taking advantage of opportunities and not gifting them.
These were arrows to and through the heart of the matter.
Sorry to say I told you so. Last Tuesday, I sat in with Jeff Woolverton and Rick Strom on a pre-Independence Bowl radio show, and at the close Woolvy asked Rick and I what we thought was likely to be the key to the game.
We both said turnovers, not that it made us geniuses.
I pointed out that Virginia Tech won the ACC title with the nation’s No. 1 turnover margin (plus-18), and that Ohio State, Stanford, Wisconsin and Oklahoma were tied at No. 3 (plus-14), and Oregon – a national championship game combatant – was right behind at plus-13.
That’s six of your 10 BCS bowl teams right there. Coincidence? No, and those are teams that can afford to make more mistakes than most.
Turnovers are a huge, huge, huge part of the game, and this wart has been on Tech’s nose with hair growing out of it.
Tech and Air Force were Nos. 1 and 2 in the nation in rushing, but the Jackets lost 17 of 33 fumbles and the Falcons lost 11 of 21. On the season, Monday included, Air Force finished plus-5 and Tech minus-6.
There, in a nutshell, is much of the difference between 9-4 and 6-7.
When you fumble away the ball at the other team’s 5-yard-line (after an 18-play, 75-yard possession than ate eight minutes off the clock), and in the same half you fumble away a punt (your second such gaffe of the quarter) and give the bad guys the ball at your 14-yard-line, well, unless you’re otherwise kicking your opponent like a Muy Thai bag, that’s no formula to ring in the new year on a happy note.
All that pre-game muck about the top two rushing teams in the nation was mostly blah-blah.
These teams knew too much about each other’s styles to give much up defensively. Tech played as well or better on that side of the ball as it had all season, allowing a modest 287 yards. The Falcons rushed for 170 yards, or 147 less than usual.
Tech moved the ball a little better (320 yards, 279 on the ground) despite having little passing game relative to Air Force’s, but as per template, the Jackets did themselves few favors.
Nine offensive possessions produced one touchdown, one stall on downs, five punts, the fumble at the 5 and what amounted to a game-ending interception with 11 seconds left. Tech missed out on two other possessions when Daniel McKayhan fumbled away punts because Jerrard Tarrant was injured.
The first lost punt gave away fine field position, the second set up the game — Air Force’s winning score.
There was more.
Air Force’s first field goal was set up by a 43-yard punt return when Tech defenders raced past the return man as they beat the ball to him (on a 51-yard punt). How about if you beat the ball, you set up shop and build a fence rather than carrying your momentum for a fly-by?
When Tech stuffed Air Force on fourth down to end three consecutive second-quarter possessions, the offense did nothing with the gifts, even thought the first set the Jackets up at Air Force’s 36-yard-line.
Elsewhere, Air Force pulled off a fake punt, and Tech had a 20-yard punt. The Falcons drove 57 yards to set up their second field goal, at the very end of the second quarter, even though they took possession with just 56 seconds left in the first half.
How many times this season have opponents made hay at the end of the first half, or right after it appeared Tech had created momentum for itself? How many times did the Jackets turn the ball over in the red zone this season?
The little things, when there are enough of them, add up to a lot of bad. You know this, and so does Johnson, who said, “It was kind of a microcosm of our season.” The epitaph on the Jackets’ season is written. It reads: “In the big picture, we were what we were, lusting to have grasped the little things.”
I’d be curious to hear whether you agree with my premises, or if you have anything to add. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.