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Sometimes the Hammer, Sometimes the Nail

Oct. 23, 2010

By Matt Winkeljohn
Sting Daily

– Tough to say whether that loss tasted like bile or bad oatmeal. Maybe not so tough; I’m going with the whole grain.

There is all manner of defeat.

Get skunked, and you’re embarrassed. Lose convincingly but with a bunch of turnovers and penalties, and you flip the what-if’s over and over in your head. There’s a slew of in-between, but when you lose like that, when there’s minimal skunkage and relatively few catastrophic mistakes, you’re left with a feeling of . . . what?

Any loss to Clemson loads into the starting gate with the potential to be a bile burp.

But when Georgia Tech fell short at Clemson Saturday, the 27-13 score was about right. That was about what happened. It was less heartburn than sinus headache.

Tech did not lose a fumble. For a team tied for the NCAA lead in fumbles and fumbles lost that was a big deal. The Yellow Jackets rushed well below their average, but 242 yards on the ground is not bum’s work unless the standard by which you measure is your own.

The Tigers’ one-man wrecking crew of a defensive end, Da’Quan Bowers, was held generally in check. Clemson had just one more first down.

Yet after the home team took a 10-0 first quarter lead, the game never again really came to hang in the balance.

And that’s not what we expected.

We know Clemson was 3-3 going in.

The game was on the road.

But Death Valley is not one of those places where you plaster the standard, “it’s a tough place to win,” placard anymore, especially if you’re Georgia Tech. The Jackets won there in four of six previous visits.

Still, the Jackets lost by Tech-nical knockout. They were PJ-ed.

Clemson won the way the Jackets so often have under coach Paul Johnson.

The rushed the ball well, with a mix of big plays.

Sophomore Andre Ellington made like the next version of C.J. Spiller, rushing for 166 yards with touchdown runs of 55 and 42 yards early in the first and second quarters, respectively.

And with the game up on a perch, waiting to be seized, the Tigers grabbed it with a 15-play, 64-yard drive that ate 7:36 off the fourth quarter clock. That felt a bit like being forced to sit on a dock and drop legs into a piranha-infested river with a couple 400-pound prison guards keeping each leg in the water as the chewing took place with you unable to do anything about it.

Hey, it happens.

Having grown up in Columbus, Ohio, and remaining to this day an Ohio State fan to the bone, I suffered a week ago as the Buckeyes, then ranked No. 1, were thumped at Wisconsin.

They didn’t get blown out. They lost 31-18. Their only turnover was a meaningless late interception, much as Tech’s only turnover came very late Saturday on a tipped pass.

But the Bucks were mashed methodically by a team uniquely constructed to beat them. The Badgers are huge, and perhaps the most physical team in the nation. Ohio State has, since getting drilled by Florida in the national championship game after the 2006 season, re-outfitted itself to defend spread offenses.

That ain’t Wisconsin. The Badgers are heavy in the pants; Ohio State is not.

Plus, Wisconsin was at home, and ticked off about recent history, which is to say a three-game losing streak to Ohio State. Bucky and his boys were wired out of their minds.

Clemson’s no Wisconsin.

But the Tigers were uniquely built to beat Tech.

They’re very, very agitated by this thing called the Ramblin’ Wreck. The Tigs’ were wired by three straight losses to Tech, including the ACC championship game. In those games they learned the nuances of Johnson’s offense as well and perhaps better than all other ACC teams.

Ohio State had not allowed a 100-yard rusher in 29 consecutive games or something like that (better than 50-50 chance I have the number of games wrong, but I’m in the ball park). That streak ended.

Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema pounded that fact into the heads of his offensive linemen all week before playing the Buckeyes. The Bucks got mashed up front, playing just five defensive linemen.

So, too, did the Jackets get konked.

“Those [Clemson] defensive linemen are going to play in the NFL,” Johnson said. “They whacked us around. You’ve got seniors whacking around freshmen and sophomores. That’s what happened.”

I guarantee you there was pre-game psychological pounding similar to Bielema’s going on last week at Clemson.

Joshua Nesbitt could have become the ACC’s all-time leading rusher among quarterbacks Saturday. He would have displaced former Clemson star Woody Dantzler had he pulled it off. He needed 44 yards.

Nesbitt got 2, on 15 carries.

Think the Tigers were loaded for Nails?

Why else would Clemson coach Dabo Swinney say, “Nesbitt came into the game needing only 44 yards to beat Woody Dantzler’s all-time rushing record for quarterbacks in the ACC . . . he’ll have to get those elsewhere.”?

Again, the Tigs’ were wired. Tip your hat, or your Bloody Mary.

And yet ye should know this: it’s not over.

Ohio State got back in the saddle and beat a 4-2 Purdue squad 49-0 Saturday. Ohio State can still win a share of the Big 10 with help. They don’t control their destiny, but they’re close. Somebody has to beat Michigan State, and the Spartans play at Iowa next Saturday.

Tech needs help, too, but the Jackets can still get to the ACC Championship Game. Both their conference losses have come against Atlantic division teams. That’s a big deal.

If the Jackets win out, which will of course be no small task, that will in the process assure Coastal division rival Miami of at least two ACC losses, and fellow Coastal cretin Virginia Tech of at least one.

Then, somebody else will have to beat Virginia Tech. The Hokies face quite a closing stretch: Georgia Tech, at North Carolina, at Miami and arch-rival Virginia.

Should there be a tie of teams with two conference losses atop the Coastal, Tech (5-3, 3-2) will, if the Jackets win out, be assured by my calculation of all tie-breakers by virtue of no division losses.

“It’s never as good or as bad as it seems,” Johnson said. “You have to give them some credit . . . they played well, and they didn’t turn the ball over [same as Wisky against OSU]. They ran the ball [for 236 yards] and controlled the clock a little bit. I’m not sure we played any different than we’ve played all year, just against better competition.”

There it is, in a nutshell.

Or a bowl of oatmeal sans sugar and spice.

Just play better next week, and the next week, and the next week, etc.

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