Jan. 1, 2013
By Matt Winkeljohn
Hopefully, you watched Georgia Tech win the Sun Bowl Monday and not only because it had been a while since the Yellow Jackets won a bowl game, but also because the game contained reflections on human conditions that were worth seeing.
The Jackets’ 21-7 win over USC was not an aesthetic gem so much as it was a slog, and that’s alright. We’re talking football here, and it’s a physical game. It’s work, not art.
Mostly, football is a game of preparation, passion and perseverance, and when one team is right and the other isn’t, you get what happened in the Sun Bowl – a group of people who care, trumping a group that would rather be somewhere else.
The final audition for interim defensive coordinator Charles Kelly went quite well. In fact, the Jackets allowed a total of seven points over the final six quarters of the season against Florida State and USC. Something became different.
Don’t downplay the value of emotional investment. The Jackets cared about winning, and they cared about each other. They didn’t want to let each other down.
“We bonded as a defense in the second half of the ACC championship game. We said we’re going to make it a big boys’ game from now on,” said safety Jamal Golden. “Let the front seven take care of the run, go two high [safeties] and we’ll take care of the pass in the back.
“We had a conversation [Sunday] night as a defensive unit, and . . . coach Kelly’s been disrespected by the media and everybody asking who’s going to be the defensive coordinator next year. We just said we’re going to beat blocks, and make tackles. That’s what defense is about.”
Southern Cal began the season ranked No. 1. Prior to the Trojans’ most recent recruiting class of 2012, which was downsized dramatically by NCAA sanctions, USC had the No. 1 recruiting group in the nation by measure of average star ranking in two of the previous three seasons from ’09-’11 by both Rivals.com and Scout.com.
That team should have, if you place stock in that kind of thing, trounced Tech.
Yet the Jackets had something the Trojans lacked. It beats deep within, and when it’s right, and it becomes shared from player 1 to 100 . . . you have passion.
Coaches and staffers are included, too, when this thing gets going and so it was Monday afternoon in El Paso as the Jackets thumped high brows to snap a seven-game bowl losing streak and unleash burdens in the process.
This is meant as more than a way of saying that the Trojans – who didn’t bother showing up for a shared team public relations dinner earlier in the week – felt offended, or as if the Sun Bowl was beneath them.
The Jackets were in a great state of mind, and this is a good spot to transition to scenes from the game. See if you agree that these add up to something special:
— The sight of players dumping a cooler of something upon head coach Paul Johnson, while cliché in some instances, was a thing of beauty this time. This team struggled to find itself this season for a variety of reasons not to be recounted here. These Jackets crossed the finish line ebullient.
— Watching Kelly collect himself in the box as the final seconds wound down, not long after the TV announcers said that he almost teared up earlier in the week in talking about how he relished his opportunity. Then, watching Kelly hug his family on the field while various awards were bestowed upon Johnson and the Jackets in the post-game . . . nice.
— In between those moments, don’t forget my favorite: the TV shot of wide receivers coach Buzz Preston – while standing – kissing Kelly’s bald head shortly before the DC rose from his chair.
— Defensive player of the game Rod Sweeting, a cornerback, mentioned Kelly in his post-game TV interview, although he wishes now that he’d cleaned up his language.
It’s not easy to describe the value of a shared goal, or how some need to sacrifice more than others to realize them. Suffice to say that it is essential in pursuing success.
Finally, after two rough, rough back-to-back losses, Tech achieved it, and not just because USC dropped its drawers. The run-based Jackets doubled the Trojans in touchdowns passes, two to one, and rushed 63 times for 294 yards as well.
The Jackets had a plan, and they played it. There was poetry involved, too, as senior quarterback Tevin Washington set more school records while rushing and throwing for scores.
The defense, though, carried the cold day in west Texas.
“Absolutely. We all love coach Kelly because he came and sat down in all of our houses recruiting us,” said senior defensive end Izaan Cross, who was among several Jackets to bust up a pass. “We came in very confident . . . we made a conscious effort.
“Everybody wanted to see the seniors out, and I wanted to end the bowl loss streak. We put so much into this.”
This game was tied at 7 at halftime, and Golden’s 53-yard punt return to the 1-yard line in the third quarter set up Washington’s touchdown run. Later, Tevin threw a touchdown pass to senior Orwin Smith on a nicely scripted play.
In the middle of the fourth quarter, CBS announcer Gary Danielson was carrying on as the Jackets were backed up after Golden fair caught a punt at the 5-yard-line.
Danielson was saying something about Tech’s fourth-quarter skeletons in the closet, and how if USC held the Jackets there, Tech would punt into the wind, and USC would have a short field, and blah, blah, blah . . .
Then, on cue, David Sims rumbled up the middle for 16. yards.
“So much for a short field,” Danielson or Verne Lundquist said.
Indeed. The drive had several more nice plays, and the Jackets flipped the field before stalling on fourth down. By this time, the Jackets led 21-7, and time was as important as points. Tech ate 3:32 on that one, and USC was in a bind with just over half a quarter left.
Seven plays later, linebacker Quayshawn Nealy intercepted a Max Wittek pass in the end zone, having dropped into a nifty zone coverage orchestrated by Kelly & Co.
Then, the Jackets burned 4:41 before punting.
After a streak of four consecutive penalties by the Jackets – who were hyped nearly out of the their collective skins – Nealy tipped a Wittek pass as the Trojans were bearing down on the end zone. Golden gladly accepted an interception.
From there, Tech ran out the final 1:04.
Good times were had in El Paso. The foundation was built – and simplified – earlier.
“We lined up in what we were good at, and told them to try to run at us,” Golden said. “We did what we’re good at.”
Here’s hoping the results spins forward. “Coach told us after the game how proud he was of how we played,” said the departing Cross, “and he said we gave something positive to build on moving forward.”
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