Dec. 1, 2013
By Matt Winkeljohn
You can bet that this is not what fetched Paul Johnson into his profession, nor his players into their game. No man would ever sign up for the emotion of Saturday, when Georgia Tech snatched defeat from victory in a game as galling as any on The Flats.
The Yellow Jackets’ head coach was close to speechless as he has probably been since he was hired at Tech, a mess to look at and listen to as he tried to put words to the Jackets’ 41-34 double-overtime loss to Georgia.
A 20-0 second quarter lead was long forgotten. So, too, was Tech’s 27-17 edge with a little more than 10 minutes left in regulation. Raw, fresh and sore: there’s your summary what happened after that.
His post-game press conference was somber beyond description. Media were nearly at a loss in trying to figure out what to ask. He was nearly lost trying to answer.
“It was a tough game,” he said. “I was proud of our guys’ efforts. It was a hard game to lose, a gut-wrenching game. It would have been for either side. Really, not a lot to say about it.”
The Governor’s Cup is going back to stinking Athens after a game where so many things went right for Tech for nearly two full quarters and just enough went wrong thereafter.
Sophomore quarterback Vad Lee, still in full uniform, had to summon a special brand of courage to address reporters. He said he didn’t care if he changed the minds of his doubters Saturday.
“No. I wanted to play hard. I wanted to win this game, especially for our seniors because I can imagine how they feel right now . . . not being able to beat Georgia,” he said with pain in his voice. “That game matters a lot here. Being here is special.
“The game is special. It was a great atmosphere, and we really wanted to win. We really wanted to win.”
The Jackets, as Johnson told his team afterward, had their chances. They rolled the Bulldogs for quite a while, building a 20-0 lead largely through the air as Lee completed 5-of-7 passes for 171 yards.
Tech scored on its first four possessions, capped when freshman Harrison Butker’s 22-yard field goal with 6:33 left in the first half gave the Jackets their biggest lead on Georgia in many, many years.
Georgia’s first four possessions went for a total of 56 yards. The visitors committed silly penalties. Stand-in quarterback Hutson Mason threw a bad interception, an ill-advised and underthrown ball that Jemea Thomas picked to set up Tech’s third score.
As UGA coach Mark Richt said, “So many little things had to go just right for us to fight our way back in there.”
That was on the money.
Tech forced a Georgia punt soon after taking that 20-0 lead, but the offense went cold. Lee’s last four passes of the half, spread over two possessions, were incomplete or intercepted.
In between, the Bulldogs took over all the way back at their 14 with just 1:43 left in the half. All they did was go 87 yards in seven plays and 1:09 to pull within 20-7 with 34 seconds left.
Four straight Mason completions were good for first downs, and then he ran 16 yards for another. His 9-yard pass to running back Todd Gurley – would become much more of a menace later – put Georgia on the board.
The Bulldogs’ offense kept it up after halftime. They scored a field goal on their first possession, and soon the first sequence of hyper critical plays happened back to back.
Tech got a little something going, moving 41 yards to the Georgia 26-yard line where a third-and-4 fell. Lee threw over the middle to senior running back Robert Godhigh, who played so valiantly in his final home game.
A big guy in red, wearing No. 51 practically crawled upon the smallish Tech back’s back just before the ball arrived. Surely, a flag would fall, right?
“He did [hit Godhigh], but I still have to get open,” the running back said. “You can’t rely on the refs to make a call for us.”
They didn’t. On came Butker.
To miss a 43-yard field goal that eventually proved critical.
Again, Georgia drove with relative ease. Soon, it was 20-17.
“[Including] the last possession of the first half, we never really got pressure on [Mason],” Johnson said. “He had all day to throw the ball. That was a killer.”
Actually, Tech had three of its five sacks in the second half, when senior defensive end Jeremiah Attaochu had three of his four to tie Greg Gathers for the Tech career record of 31 – fifth most in ACC history.
Mason attempted 13 passes in the first half and was sacked two others times. He attempted 23 passes in the second half and was sacked three times.
Attaochu agreed, though, with Johnson’s assessment in a way. When he didn’t reach Mason in the second half, rarely did anybody else come close.
“They definitely made some adjustments,” Attaochu said. “They left an extra guy in to block at times, and they tried to get the screen game going . . . they were definitely trying to slow the rush down.”
The Jackets would counter with a rousing, 14-play, 75-yard drive that ate 6:58. When Lee threw a bullet to Smelter for a 7-yard score, Tech led 27-17 with 10:34 to go in regulation.
Problem was, Gurley arrived in full thereafter.
The fine Georgia back rushed 11 times for 36 yards through three-plus quarters, but owned the rest of the game on his way to finishing with a game-high 122 yards and three rushing touchdowns on 20 carries, not to mention four catches for 36 yards and another score.
As the Bulldogs went about pulling to within 27-24, the key play was a fourth-and-6 completion that had it failed, would have all but salted the game for Tech. Georgia was down 10, and at its own 39. A miss there, and Tech would be nearly in field goal position with about seven minutes left.
But Mason found split end Michael Bennett over the middle for 11 yards.
To pull from Richt, it was a “little thing” writ quite large.
A bit later, Gurley scored on a 2-yard run with 6:37 on the clock to put wraps on a 13-play, 77-yard march.
The Dogs were surging. Tech needed to chew time and hopefully score yet again.
On second down, however, Lee went to pass. As he back-pedaled away from the rush, the slinger threw anyway toward Godhigh, who’d beaten his man down the right side.
Problem was, that backpedal took steam off Lee’s throw. Strong safety Josh Harvey-Clemons undercut the ball, and picked it. An 18-yard return took the Dogs to the Tech 18.
“I beat [my defender],” Godhigh said. “It was just underthrown and they made a play on it.”
The defense held Georgia to a field goal with 4:17 in the fourth, and both teams would fail on one more possession in the period.
“It kind of hurt a little bit because we were up early in the game, but we were still pumped going into overtime,” Godhigh said. “Nobody was really down. We were ready to go.”
Lee scored first in overtime, yet Georgia countered with Gurley for 8, 11 and 6 to tie again.
“We challenged Todd and we challenged the line,” Richt said. “We decided we were going to run our bread-and-butter plays, plays that we believe in the most. We almost threw a pass on the first play of the second [overtime], but we decided we were going to run that ball on first down and just see.
“It just happened that we hit a crease, and they were in a pressure.”
Tech’s blitz missed, and linebacker Quayshawn Nealy – who led the Jackets with 10 combined tackles and assists – was just barely sealed off on the first play of the second overtime as Gurley went up the middle for 25 and a score on the very first play.
The Jackets drove to fourth-and-5 at the Georgia 6. The game hung in the balance. Lee dropped to pass. The target would be wide receiver Darren Waller in the end zone.
“It was a quick slant and they had man-to-man coverage,” the quarterback explained. “It was supposed to be quick, but the defender was right here so I tried to let Darren clear a little bit.”
Harvey-Clemons grabbed Waller in the back of the end zone. That would have been holding or interference but for the fact that linebacker Ramik Wilson tipped the ball before it got to Waller and Harvey-Clemons.
The ball was batted twice, in fact, and a couple Tech players had a shot at it.
“I got hit as I was trying to catch it,” Godhigh said of the second carom.
The ball found grass.
The Jackets slumped. Senior fullback David Sims had rushed for 100 yards, Lee had passed for 232 yards and two scores and run for two more. Tech mustered 495 yards, had a 20-0 lead at home, and yet lost.
“It’s a lot of emotions because it was the last game at home, we had the lead most of the game,” Godhigh summarized. “Losing in overtime always hurts, then losing to Georgia is the ultimate hurt. So it definitely hurts a lot.”
Johnson moments earlier said the same thing, and that Saturday will take serious work to process.
Then, he was finished with his presser.
And as he walked from the room, he passed the last reporter of the field. So softly as to probably be heard only by one, he said, “Damn.”
Get Sting Daily in your e-mail box — it’s free! Just register here to get the latest features on Georgia Tech Athletics.