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#STINGDAILY: Flashback to '97

Dec. 29, 2012

By Jon Cooper
Sting Daily

It’s a funny thing about streaks.

When a team is on a winning streak fate somehow finds a way to match it up against a team going the other way and vice versa.

At the start of the 1997 bowl season, Georgia Tech was riding a three-game bowl winning streak, although they hadn’t played in a bowl in six years. Naturally, their opponent for the Carquest Bowl would be West Virginia. The Mountaineers had lost six straight bowl games, one to end each of the last three seasons. Adding to the frustration, the last two came by three points and seven points.

The match-up of 6-5 Georgia Tech and 7-4 West Virginia brought two teams to Fort Lauderdale that both had suffered more than their share of close losses.

The Yellow Jackets were in the third season under George O’Leary and had matched their best year with him, going 6-5. But of the five losses on their schedule four came by a four-or-fewer points and totaled 14 points, including a 17-13 loss at No. 11 Notre Dame in the season opener, a 16-13 loss to No. 5 North Carolina and a 27-24 loss to No. 14 Georgia.

Led by sophomore QB Joe Hamilton, the Jackets had won two of their final three games, and seemed to find its personality heading into the bowl game. They could score a bunch and the defense, which finished the worst in the ACC during the season, was starting to find some cohesion.

The Mountaineers were a quality team, but had run out of steam some down the stretch. They’d lost three of their final four games, and the last two of were especially tough, a 21-14 loss to Notre Dame and a 41-38 loss in the Backyard Brawl against Pittsburgh. Featuring future NFL quarterback Marc Bulger and wide receiver Jerry Porter, and running back “Famous” Amos Zereoue,who ran for nearly 1,600 yards during the season, Don Nehlen’s club also was carrying in a little bit of bowl luggage, in the form or a six-game bowl-losing streak.

The WVU defense must have felt like it was carrying that baggage on its back DURING the game in futile pursuit of Hamilton.

The sophomore QB frustrated the Mountaineers all day, gaining 356 yards of total offense (274 passing and 82 rushing) and orchestrated first-half scoring drives of 80-, 76-, 94- and 76-yards, as Tech built up a 28-14 halftime lead.

Tech’s quarterback almost outran Zereoue, gaining only two fewer yards on three fewer carries.

He completed two of Tech’s scoring drives with his legs, on a 30-yard run to give the Jackets a 14-7 lead late in the first quarter, a lead from which Tech would never again trail, and a nine-yard run just before the half.

When he wasn’t rushing forward, he was escaping laterally then completing passes. He hit on 19 of 36 on the day, including accounting for a third score on a three-yard pass to Mike Lillie, whose second-quarter touchdown, his first receiving score of the season, boosted Tech’s lead to 21-7.

“A couple of times Joe made something out of nothing,” said George O’Leary. “That’s a sign of a great athlete.”

With the Jackets offense controlling the ball so long, the Jackets defense found its job easier and they handled business adequately. They didn’t stop Bulger, who completed 25 of 40 passes for 353 yards and two touchdowns, including scoring passes of 21 and 74 yards to Porter, but never allowed the Mountaineers to equalize.

WVU cut the lead to 28-24 after three, but Hamilton led another scoring drive in the fourth, completed by a Charles Wiley five-yard score and from there, Tech held West Virginia off.

“It’s a great feeling,” said Hamilton, upon being named game MVP. “But I give it back to my teammates and coaches.”

The feelings were a lot more raw on the West Virginia sideline, where Nehlen was asked about the bowl skein which had been extended to six.

“What do you want me to say?” he said. “We’ve lost seven in a row. We’re not proud of it. But we’ve played some pretty good teams. There are a lot of teams that would like to be able to say they’ve lost seven. At least we had a chance to lose them.”

The streak would reach eight the following season, before being snapped in 2000, coincidentally the same year Tech’s streak of five straight bowl wins ended.

That ’97 Carquest Bowl also would start a different kind of streak for Tech — their current streak of 16 straight bowl appearances.

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