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Tech Forging Personality on Both Sides of Ball

Oct. 17, 2010

By Matt Winkeljohn
Sting Daily

At the risk of stating the obvious, that was a nice win Saturday.

Georgia Tech did most of what it should have done, but before dismissing that as folly a true Yellow Jackets fan should look for deeper meanings within. There were a few in a 42-14 win over Middle Tennessee State, even if there were also enough botched opportunities to cause concern.

MTSU may be mediocre, and the victory may not carry the value of skunking Clemson on the road, which Tech may do next week with the possibility of Joshua Nesbitt becoming the ACC’s all-time leading rusher among quarterbacks at the school where record holder (Woody Dantzler) played.

More importantly, if you couldn’t sense it watching – and you must’ve been asleep if that were the case – in the post-game press conference under Bobby Dodd Stadium, there was a different sense of things.

The weird, “Who-are-we?” vibe seems to be falling away from the Jackets.

Head coach Paul Johnson was not exactly glib, but he wasn’t a sourpuss. If you read faces, he wore one that seemed to indicate that he has a better idea where his football team might be capable of going.

Up until a few weeks ago, it was purely a guessing game. Now, it’s partly a guessing game.

“I think we are getting better, and we are going to have to because we are starting to hit the meat of our schedule,” Johnson said.

Tech’s loss at Kansas five weeks ago was the worst of the Johnson era. Period. No bones. Kansas has lost the last two weeks by a combined score of something like 114-14 to a couple of mediocre teams.

It would not be the first unexplainable phenomenon in college football history if Tech keeps rolling and the Jayhawks keep floundering.

More importantly, the Jackets have not let a loss, or even two, define nor deflate them.

Most importantly, there is evidence of Tech finding an emotional pulse.

Johnson has suggested that he’s been looking for leaders to emerge.

Captains Nesbitt and linebacker Brad Jefferson are stout, workaholic, tough-nosed ballers. But beyond the fingernails-on-chalkboards fact they’re from the heart of Bulldog country (Greensboro and Wrightsville, respectively), they’re also soft-spoken.

This team for a while lacked an emotional baseline. It was like a group of lieutenants looking for a captain, or a general, or whatever is up the line.

The rallying cry this week was provided by one of three former NCAA head coaches on Johnson’s staff.

Al Groh’s the man!

The defensive coordinator and former Virginia coach got wind (thanks, I think, to cornerback Dominique Reese) of a story in which MTSU QB Dwight Dasher said that he’s better than Joshua Nesbitt.

That’s debatable, even if Dasher’s high school team beat Nesbitt’s high school team by one point in an epic Georgia high school state playoff game in the Georgia Dome when they were juniors.

There’s no question that the Jackets, particularly on defense, took the smack talk to heart.

With just two interceptions and seven takeaways in the first six games, the Jackets intercepted Dasher four times and registered six takeaways. They were hacked off.

“During the week, [Groh] read us a newspaper article where the quarterback was talking about how he was better than Nesbitt, and Nesbitt knew he was better and we kind of took that to heart to prove a point that you’re not going to come into our house,” said safety Jerrard Tarrant, who had two interceptions and a third canceled by penalty.

So the Jackets bowed up on emotional grounds. That’s a good thing. Bowing up is different for this team.

For the third week in a row, the defense looked as if it understands what Groh has in mind.

Challenged by Johnson after wasting two of three first-half interceptions on the way to a modest 14-7 halftime lead, the offense scored three straight touchdowns in the second half after a brief stall.

Field position was big all day; so were the kickoff and punting games, not to mention takeaways.

The passing game was again a disaster, but for a change it had little to do with Nesbitt’s accuracy.

He was on target most of the day, but Embry Peeples dropped two touchdown passes, didn’t raise his hands to try to catch what might have been another (sun?), Correy Earls nearly caught a 35-yard touchdown pass only to have a defender and the ground pop the ball out at the goal line, and Stephen Hill had a 51-yard TD pass wiped out by his interference penalty.

But don’t over worry.

Be happy like I was at my favorite site: between the end of the third quarter and the start of the fourth, while the Jackets were in a big huddle near the sideline, Johnson stood back a yard or so from the scrum and looked up at the big Jumbotron or whatever that thing is, and he stared.

There, images of the student body jumping up and down during the Budweiser song seemed to intrigue the man. I’m not sure if Johnson would have had time, or frame of mind, to watch a few weeks ago.

He does now, although not for long. Coming up: @ Clemson; @ Virginia Tech; and Miami.

“I’m worried about Clemson,” the coach said. “I’m sure they are going to be welcoming us with open arms in Death Valley. We’ve got to get ready to play our best game of the year.”

Maybe. Maybe not. The Tigers of coach Dabo are not ready to win it all.

But the Jackets are definitely more likely to play their best game, or a really good one, than they were a few weeks ago. They had several personalities then. They’ve narrowed that list down.

Comments to, or else.


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