Nov. 1, 2008
By JACK WILKINSON
On Saturday, 499 years to the day since the public first saw Michelangelo’s frescoes painted on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, Georgia Tech created a masterpiece all its own. Like ol’ Mikey himself, the Jackets spent much of their time bent over backward and, in the final moments, nearly flat on their backs. Yet in the end, Tech stood tall. And Florida State? Finally, after several heartbreaks, the Seminoles were suitable for framing.
“Wow, what a game, huh? We had ’em all the way,” Paul Johnson deadpanned after the Jackets’ exhilarating 31-28 triumph. In 1975, the last time Georgia Tech had beaten FSU, Johnson was still in high school in North Carolina. Early Saturday evening, the Tech coach was in the midst of a wild, impromptu mosh pit just off North Avenue, one that spilled onto Grant Field at game’s raucous end.
This, after Cooper Taylor — the freshman safety who’d been burned on a long touchdown pass that fueled yet another furious Seminoles’ comeback — used his head. And his helmet, with which Taylor knocked the ball out of FSU fullback Marcus Sims’ grasp at the goal line.
This, after Rashaad Reid — the freshman cornerback Tech was forced to start due to injuries — followed the bouncing ball in the end zone and, instead of immediately diving on it, bent down to pick it up. “When I saw him trying to pick up that ball, I wanted to strangle him,” Johnson said, smiling. “When I saw him roll over with it, I wanted to kiss it.”
This, after Reid’s recovery with 45 seconds left preserved Tech’s first ACC victory over Florida State since the Seminoles joined the conference in 1992 — and ignited the wildest post-game celebration Bobby Dodd Stadium’s seen since the 1999 Georgia overtime epic.
“I have a busted lip,” Darryl Richard, the senior defensive tackle, said, beaming and touching his swollen upper lip. “I didn’t get this in the game. From a Tech crazy. I think he might’ve been a little over-served.” And he beamed even brighter.
“I’d heard we hadn’t beaten FSU in forever,” said Nick Claytor, the redshirt freshman offensive tackle from Gainesville, Ga. Actually, it was only 33 years. It just seemed like forever. And the post-game, on-field frenzy?
“Just the euphoria after the game with all the fans — I’d never experienced that,” said Claytor, whose flattening pancake block opened what Jonathan Dwyer called “the biggest hole I’ve ever seen” for Dwyer’s 66-yard touchdown run and a 31-20 Tech lead 78 seconds into the third quarter.
“After the game,” Claytor said, “with all the Georgia Tech students and fans and families on the field, when I committed to Georgia Tech, things like that, that’s what I wanted to experience.”
None of the Jackets had ever experienced the satisfaction of defeating Florida State. For Bobby Bowden, Saturday was a unique experience, too. “Back in 1992, when we first joined the ACC,” said Bowden, the Seminoles’ coach since 1976, “we had one of the best comebacks we’ve ever had right here.
“We were down 14 points with maybe 10 minutes to go, or something like that,” he said. “That’s when Charlie Ward went back in the shotgun and we came back and won.”
In the `Noles “fast break,” as they called their no-huddle shotgun, Ward led them to 22 fourth-quarter points — 15 in the last 3:20. FSU won 29-24, and went on to win the national championship the next season, with Ward winning the Heisman. For Tech, 4-1 at the time, that was the beginning of the end for coach Bill Lewis. He was fired during the ’94 season.
“That’s one of the best comeback wins we’ve had since I’ve been here,” Bowden recalled Saturday. “Today, I think, would have been better, much bigger if we could have come back today because we had to come back time after time. We were down 14 one time (24-10), and down 11 (31-20) and we could’ve come back and won the dadgum ballgame.”
If so, Tech would have been heartbroken by FSU once more. In 1999 in Tallahassee, the year Joe Hamilton finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting, the Tech quarterback passed the Seminoles silly, only to fall short. Again. That game was the crux of just one of many text messages Richard got this week from former Tech players, this one sent anonymously.
“He got my number,” said Richard, who called up the text message and read it to reporters after the game: “Need motivation for this game? Go with the ’99 Tech versus FSU. Ask Todd [McCarthy, who runs Tech’s athletic video department] for a copy of the game. They won the national championship that year. We lost by three.”
Actually, Tech lost 41-35. The following season, FSU won here 26-21. In 2003 in Tallahassee, the `Noles broke Tech’s heart, if not its will, scoring twice in the fourth quarter to overcome a 13-0 deficit and prevail 14-13. That was their last meeting, until Saturday.
“No,” Johnson said quickly, when asked if he had any sense of the heartbreak FSU had caused Georgia Tech. “That one today maybe gets some of it back. I really feel like we had a lot of the momentum and had it going our way. And when our quarterback got hurt, it turned around.”
A week after Josh Nesbitt quickly led Tech to a 14-3 lead over Virginia, only to fumble twice and throw an interception and fall 24-17, the quarterback ran the option superbly and led Tech to that 31-20 lead. But when Nesbitt left the game with a badly sprained ankle midway through the third quarter and never returned, FSU nearly dashed Tech’s hopes yet again.
With Jaybo Shaw at quarterback, the `Noles shut down the option and scored on D’Vontrey Richardson’s 39-yard touchdown pass to Preston Parker — who beat Cooper Taylor at the goal line. A two-point conversion fade to Greg Carr cut it to 31-28.
And when Shaw was intercepted at the FSU 41, the Seminoles drove to a second-and-goal at the Tech 3. “It was all on me,” said Taylor, the freshman safety from Marist. “I should’ve come back to (intercept) that ball. I should’ve turned and picked it.”
Instead, Taylor used his head in the final minute in the shadow of his own end zone. “I guess,” he said, “it’s kind of sin and redemption.”
“I really don’t know what I was thinking,” Reid said of reaching down for Sims’ fumble instead of falling on it. “I’m just glad I finally fell on it. I don’t know what I’d be thinking if they’d scored a touchdown. I was just thinking, `Oh, I hope they don’t recover this fumble or it’d be on me the whole year.”
Instead, the whole season — and Tech’s place in the ACC Coastal Division race — is re-energized. With Virginia’s loss to Miami Saturday, the Jackets — 4-2 in ACC play, 7-2 overall — are atop the division again. UVa, however, tied with Miami at 3-2 in the ACC, still holds the head-to-head tiebreaker with Tech. Nevertheless, Tech is back in the Coastal race.
“I told my guys I felt all along that we’ve got to take care of our business,” Johnson said. If the Jackets — with ACC games left at North Carolina and home versus Miami — finish with two conference losses, Johnson likes their divisional chances very much. He likes his team even more.
“When the season started, everyone wrote us off,” said the first-year coach. “When we won three or four, everybody jumped on the bandwagon. When we lost last week, they couldn’t jump off fast enough.”
Now the bandwagon is SRO. Take a number. Now Tech, 7-2, is bowl eligible and surely headed for a 12th straight bowl. Who knows? It might even be in Tampa, on Dec. 6th, in the ACC Championship Game. Now Johnson knows how it feels to coach against Bobby Bowden, he of the 379 wins: “It was humbling to be on the other sideline.”
And now Georgia Tech knows what it finally feels like to beat FSU. That hadn’t happened since 1975, when another Tech coach who ran the option — Pepper Rodgers — crushed FSU and coach Darrell Mudra 30-0. The next fall, Bobby Bowden hit Tallahassee.
“Good teams don’t lose two in a row.” That’s what Johnson told his players after the Virginia loss. Reminded of that Saturday night, and asked how good his team is now, Johnson replied, “I don’t know. It’s a work in progress.”
Actually, it’s already more than that. A win over Florida State? Frame that sucker.