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Playing to Win the Game

Nov. 7, 2007

By Jack Wilkinson –

This was a few seasons ago, when Herm Edwards was still the head coach of the New York Jets, before he jumped starship for Kansas City and the Chiefs. During one particularly contentious press conference with the assembled New York hackerati[cq], Edwards, blood vessels about to burst in his neck, answered one inquiry angrily, his voice and fury rising with every other word.

“You PLAY…to WIN…the GAME!!!”

Which is precisely what Georgia Tech is now trying to do. Virginia Tech’s a memory, albeit a nightmarish one. There is no more Coastal Division title longshot to aim at. No return to the ACC Championship Game. Quite likely, there will be no bowl bid as flattering as last year’s Gator.

Instead, the Jackets find themselves en route to Duke Saturday and playing football for the most fundamental of reasons down the November stretch.

“You PLAY…to WIN…the GAME!!!”

Not that Tech doesn’t have incentives. There are several, some noteworthy, even if none include national rankings, conference titles or January football by the beach.

“We can’t look back in the past,” said junior wide receiver James Johnson, who caught seven passes for a career-high 136 yards versus Virginia Tech, but also lost a crucial fumble in the second half of that 27-3 Halloween Night defeat. “We pretty much have to look forward to the next three games.

“They’re still pivotal,” he said. “Maybe we can still do something big.”

At 5-4 overall, 2-4 in ACC play, Tech can’t win a second straight Coastal title. With Saturday’s non-televised 1 p.m. kickoff in Durham followed by home games against North Carolina and Georgia, the Jackets have goals to achieve, if not the big picture they once envisioned.

“We’ve still got a record with the [consecutive] bowl games,” Johnson said. Indeed, Tech is one of just six teams to play in a bowl game in each of the last 10 seasons. All of the other five (Virginia Tech, Florida, Georgia, Michigan and Florida State) have already become bowl eligible. With a sixth victory at Duke, the Jackets would be bowl-eligible for the 11th straight season.

With two victories, they’ll guarantee the Institute’s 11th consecutive winning season.

“Coach reminded us that Tech’s never been below .500 in ACC games [over the last 11 seasons, the longest current streak in the conference],” Johnson said. “We can still do that with two games to go [and extend the run to 12].”

“I do that every week: where we are, where we want to be and what we need to do to get there,” said coach Chan Gailey, who’s already apprised his players of Saturday’s – and the season’s – implications. “Whats at stake,” he said. “The bowl opportunities, our standing in the conference. I talked about all of that.”

There’s more, perhaps enough to warrant a Peek performance. “If we win these last three games and go to a good bowl game and win,” said sophomore tight end Colin Peek, “we’ll have a 9-4 record, which is better than the record we had last year.”

There would be little comparison, really, to that 9-5 disappointment, which ended with close, consecutive, crushing losses to Georgia [for a sixth straight year], Wake Forest in the ACC title game and West Virginia in the Gator Bowl.

Win at Duke, however, and Tech would have 15 ACC victories over the last three seasons. Only Virginia Tech has won more often in the conference during that time. Beat North Carolina, and then upset Georgia, and that would not only give Gailey his first victory over Tech’s bitter in-state rival, but make Peek one happy Jacket.

“Hopefully, we shock the world,” he said, smiling. “Shock the state, at least.”

For now, Tech must forget its poor performance against Virginia Tech and subsequent disappointment. “In college football,” said senior center Kevin Tuminello, “you have to have a short-term memory.”

Even better, Tech should have Tashard Choice back this weekend. The ACC’s leading rusher, who had knee surgery after the Army game and could only watch in uniform as Virginia Tech beat the Jackets, expects to play Saturday. Gailey gladly awaits his return.

“Any time that you’ve got the leading rusher in the conference back on the field,” Gailey said, “it helps your people.”

The return of Choice (averaging an ACC-leading 108.0 rushing yards per game, with seven touchdowns) will also bolster quarterback Taylor Bennett, who struggled terribly against Virginia Tech’s defensive pressure (11-for-26, 157 yards and a career-high four interceptions).

It should give Tech its fourth straight win over Duke and 12th in the last 13 meetings – and also prevent a repeat of the Jackets’ disastrous trip to Durham in 2003. That day in Wallace Wade Stadium, the Blue Devils – having lost an ACC-record 30 conference games in a row – trounced Tech 41-17. It enabled Ted Roof, once a great Georgia Tech linebacker in the ’80s, later a Tech assistant coach and then Duke’s defensive coordinator and interim head coach – to get the Duke job permanently.

On the field afterward, during a delirious post-game radio show, Roof gave out his home address and invited any Duke students who wanted to crash a post-game party to drop by. Many did.

These current Blue Devils, 0-8 and 1-6 in the ACC, are now mired in a 23-game conference skid.

“That’s not a big thing to me,” Gailey said. “I’d rather build on our positives.”

And James Johnson? “Whew. That’d be very bad,” he said, when informed of Duke’s 23-game ACC losing streak and Tech’s visit in ’03.

“Hopefully, we don’t even want to go to that level. We’re really planning on jumping on those guys early. We’re having a hard time getting [ahead of] people early. Hopefully, we’ll come out on offense, defense and special teams, and hit on all cylinders.”

And play…to win…the game.


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