Nov. 30, 2013
By Jon Cooper
You don’t always have to win to have the heart of a champion.
Sometimes it takes having that heart broken to realize what it takes to become a champion.
Vad Lee is going through that heartbreak and will be for a while.
He and the entire Georgia Tech team — players and coaches alike — will be suffering following their 41-34 double-overtime loss to Georgia Saturday evening at Bobby Dodd Stadium. It was a loss that stretches the bounds of cruelty.
It was a loss so devastating that even head coach Paul Johnson, who has coached more than 30 years, was nearly choked up for his entire postgame press conference — a sub-three-minute session that felt more like three hours.
Yet, as difficult as it is to believe — and as trite as it may sound — there will be a sunrise tomorrow and there will be brighter days ahead for Georgia Tech, very soon, in fact. And when those bright days come, don’t be surprised if No. 2 is out there leading the way.
Not that that was any consolation.
Lee showed what he was made of Saturday, throwing for a career-high 232 yards, and accounting for 295 yards of total offense, both career highs, while rushing for his 1,000th career yard and cracking the top-10 for single-season total offense, passing Joe Hamilton and Bill Lothridge. But his individual accomplishments and the future of the Yellow Jackets under his control, were buried underneath layers of hurt for the present team, and, especially the seniors, who a month from now, will be relegated to the past.
“I’m all about wins. 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,” Lee managed to get out afterward. “That game matters a lot here. The game was special. It was a great atmosphere and we really wanted to win. We really wanted to win.”
Lee showed that commitment throughout. In a week when he was the focal point of the game plan and his ability to throw the ball mattered, he came up big, all day long.
After putting too much juice on his first throw of the game in air-mailing a wide receiver screen well over 6-1 Micheal Summers, Lee settled in and found himself — and several wide open receivers.
He would complete his next five throws for big gains.
Two plays after the misfire to Summers, Lee hit Darren Waller in stride for a 68-yard gain, setting up a first-and-goal from the six. Two plays later he took it in for the score. On the next series he looped a pass in to A-Back Robert Godhigh, who rambled 43 yards to the Georgia 37. Seven plays later, Tech got a 37-yard field goal extending the lead to 10-0.
Lee struck again on the next series, hitting DeAndre Smelter on a 26-yard slant for a touchdown and a 17-0 lead. He finished the first 15 minutes 3-for-3, for 137 yards and a touchdown. The first-quarter yardage was more than he’d threw for in eight entire games this season.
The hot hand continued in the second quarter, when Lee hit A-Back Synjyn Days for 18 yards and a first down, then, six plays later went back to Godhigh for 16 yards, getting Tech to Georgia’s nine. The drive would bog down, however, as a third-and-goal pass toward Smelter fell incomplete and Tech would get another field goal for a 20-0 lead.
Lee wouldn’t complete another pass in the half, but still went into the locker room with his career-high in passing (171 yards) on 5-of-11 passing.
He continued to make big throws in the second half, going six-for-12 for 51 yards and another touchdown, also to Smelter, to finish the game 11-for-23, with two TDs and two interceptions (although the first was a “Hail Mary” to end the first half. In the second half he never threw back-to-back incompletions. He even scored touchdown on the first possession of overtime.
“We had a good game plan coming in,” Lee said. “We knew that we were going to try to hit some big pass plays and we did. We did in the beginning. If only we could have hit some of those plays towards the end, but we couldn’t finish. We had a good game plan. It was there. All I had to do was throw the receivers the ball and they made it happen.”
“They were selling out to play the run with the corners and safeties,” said Johnson. “They had some guys out in the secondary, you know. He played well. He made some plays.”
Cruelly, Lee’s effort will be remembered more a pass in which he made a bad choice — a back-foot, jump-ball throw he tried to force under duress to B-Back David Sims that was intercepted and set up the game-tying field goal, and a pass that he had no choice but to try to force in to Waller on fourth and five on the second overtime possession that was batted away.
Those two plays didn’t dominate his performance in Johnson’s eyes.
“I thought he managed the game well,” Johnson said. “He got pressure on the one interception, that was really about the only one that I can think of. That was a poor decision but he played very well.”
“He did a great job coming out from the beginning of the game,” added Godhigh, one of 17 seniors honored prior to the game, who caught four passes for 82 yards, both team-highs. “He wasn’t rattled, he stayed calm and cool and he managed the game very well. We just couldn’t come up with it at the end.”
Lee showed just how far he’s come since stepping in to take his first snap as a starter back on Aug. 31 in the season-opener against Elon.
”There’s a maturation process throughout the whole season, for everybody, really,” said Godhigh. “I’ve definitely seen him step up and become that leader for the offense.”
That progress is lost on Lee tonight, following what he called his toughest game to date.
“You just lay it out on the line so much,” he said before stopping to compose himself. “You just lay it out on the line and we came up short.”
It probably will be lost on him for the next couple of nights.
But it won’t be lost on him forever. In fact, it shouldn’t be long before he’s using Saturday as motivation for whichever bowl game Georgia Tech is selected.
He already started to once asked about preparing for said bowl game.
“[We] just have to get better,” he said. “We can’t hang our heads. We’ve just got to get better.”
Lee will be better. Bet on it.
That break in Lee’s heart tonight will heal and when it does that heart of a champion will beat stronger than ever.
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