Nov. 30, 2012
by Matt Winkeljohn, Sting Daily –
With a unique opportunity to turn its football seasons yet again, and in a big way, Georgia Tech will leave this morning for Charlotte to take the first step toward a turnaround that won’t be up for confirmation until this time next year.
Yes, that was seasons – plural.
The Yellow Jackets have been a multiple personality squad this fall, an on-off-on-off unit whose fan base has come to a loss in trying to peg what’s next. Even head coach Paul Johnson has had a hard time explaining motivations.
In the first teleconference with coaches participating in the ACC Championship Game, Johnson was asked on Sunday what sparked the “turnaround” that saw Tech go from 1-3 in the first half of the conference schedule to 4-0 in the second.
His answer was, “Frankly, I don’t know.”
That does not signify a shortcoming; it’s a sign that the Jackets haven’t found themselves. They don’t have a baseline.
Let’s review: in an odd Labor Day opener at Virginia Tech, the Jackets battled like mad, took a late lead, gave it up later, and lost in overtime. It was a loss, but it didn’t appear catastrophic both because the Jackets played with so much spunk and so many figured Virginia Tech was going to be so good.
The jury wasn’t in, but doubt was hardly in the equation. Blowout wins over Presbyterian and especially Virginia made Tech look pretty good.
Then, another overtime loss in the ACC, to Miami in a game that was 60-plus minute study in schizophrenia. The Jackets fell behind 19-0 in the first quarter, rolled through the second and third quarters to take a sizable lead, and then vanished in the fourth quarter. Overtime hurt.
That game re-set the Jackets’ mindset in a bad way. A three-touchdown loss at home to Middle Tennessee State was by far the low point of the season. Tech bounced back, though, to not only compete at Clemson but lead in the fourth quarter. The Tigers rallied to win.
At that point, at 2-4 in the middle of the season, and with a 1-3 mark in league play, the Jackets were at the counter ready to check out. Except they didn’t.
“They’ve been fairly resilient for a young football team and they’ve bounced back a couple different times when it could’ve gone south,” Johnson said. “They’ve put forth the energy and fought to come back.”
Boston College was awful, and the Jackets brained the Eagles. Then, BYU came to Atlanta and pretty much treated Tech the same way.
Hmmmm. What to make of GT?
Maryland was not a quality squad, and the Terrapins literally did not have a quarterback, yet when Tech went to College Park and demolished the Terps there was not enough information to consider that a great sign, but enough to know it wasn’t bad.
A 68-50 win at North Carolina was probably the most definitive game of the season. In it, there were endless indications of what the Tech offense can do when dialed in, special teams made significant contributions despite some notable hiccups, and the defense struggled.
There it was: the season in a nutshell.
A home win over a much-improved Duke squad that had plenty to play for was solid, especially when the defense tightened up big-time in the second half. Tech became bowl eligible. The Jackets were looking pretty good, especially considering where they had been.
“My goal for the second half of the season was to make sure we played better, got the ship righted, and made sure we got bowl eligible,” the Tech coach said. “That was the push, and I thought that was realistic goal for the team going into the second half of the year sitting at 2-4.”
So as the rivalry game with Georgia arrived, there were reasons to think the Jackets might rise above external expectations and spring a monumental upset.
They did not. Johnson earlier this week said his team didn’t compete at nearly a high enough level. It would be impossible for a sane person to argue.
“It’s been a different year. I mean, it’s been a tale of two different seasons,” Johnson said while forgetting a couple. “The first part we lost a couple of close games and I think it really affected us. We came back, bounced back, got in the conference schedule and played a little better, but it’s been a different year.
“We’ve actually played far better in the conference than we have outside it; normally, that’s not always the case . . . The way the season’s unfolded, it’s been a grind; it’s been a grind on the kids. When you lose those close games like that early, you dig yourself a hole and you have to fight out.”
The Jackets are a big underdog again. Florida State is quite talented, with speed and athleticism across the field on both sides of the ball. That doesn’t mean that Tech – which will lose just a handful of senior starters between this season and next – can’t take a big step toward righting the ship on a bigger level.
“I think they realize they have a good opportunity in front of them and hopefully we’ll prepare that way and go up there and give it our best shot,” Johnson said. “That’s why you play the game.”
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