Oct. 25, 2015
By Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word
Long before Saturday night’s massive, “Miracle on Techwood Drive,” the foundation for Georgia Tech’s upset of No. 9 Florida State was built with small pieces in meetings and practices.
There, far from the bright lights of sold-out Bobby Dodd Stadium, outside the aim of ESPN cameras and the view of a national television audience, the Yellow Jackets steeled themselves to play their best defense, to do it right.
Boy, did they ever.
Tech walled up in the ever-important red zone and allowed just 13 points on four possessions where the Seminoles had a first down inside the Jackets’ 20-yard line. There, backed up against the wall, Tech stood up and pushed back to set the stage for an enormous upset on an amazing final play.
When holding the nation’s second-leading rusher, Dalvin Cook, to 82 yards – or 77 fewer than his average – is icing, then the cake was the sweetest.
“We played with so much energy and intensity. You could hear the guys behind us [making] calls. We were really communicating, and I think that’s what makes it my favorite game so far because we played as one unit,” said sophomore defensive end KeShun Freeman.
“We had so much enthusiasm and unity . . . You get down there, it’s so easy to get discouraged. We got solid, stuck together and gave up field goals, but it was better than them scoring [touchdowns].”
Coordinator Ted Roof and Tech’s defensive staff made adjustments in building a game plan with quite a few three-man defensive fronts, and players in different places. Through all the changes, Roof and the Tech assistants pounded a theme: don’t make a zero by trying be a hero, just do your job.
The message resonated with the Jackets. Florida State (6-1) mustered a modest 280 yards of total offense, converted just 2-of-10 first downs, and scored three points in the second half.
“Really, [it was] just everybody doing their job,” said defensive tackle Pat Gamble, who blocked Roberto Aguayo’s 56-yard field goal try to set up Lance Austin’s remarkable 78-yard game-winning return with no time remaining.
“All week, coach Roof and the others stressed, ‘Do your job, do your job.’ The whole game everybody was set on doing their job, and that’s why we had as much success as we did.”
It didn’t take long to see that something was different.
Cook ran for 6 yards on the game’s first play. He’s familiar, having gashed the Jackets in last season’s ACC Championship Game for 177 rushing yards on a career-high 31 carries, and catching five passes for 43 more yards.
But senior safety Jamal Golden tackled FSU’s Freddie Stevenson for a 4-yard loss on a second-down pass, and a third-down pass to Cook went for 7 of the 8 yards the Seminoles needed.
Golden and a defense stretched thin by the absence of injured senior cornerback D.J. White didn’t have long to rest after that three-and-out.
Josh Sweat moments later returned the first of two interceptions thrown by Justin Thomas to Tech’s 19-yard-line, and after a 17-yard run by Cook, the Seminoles had first-and-goal at the 2.
Stoned for no gain on the next two plays, first by Adam Gotsis and Paul Davis and then by Gamble and Rod Rook-Chungong, Cook couldn’t score. Everett Golson threw incomplete on third down and FSU settled for a field goal.
“Defensively we played the run so much better – 70 [total rushing] yards, I’d say,” said head coach Paul Johnson. “We played good red zone defense . . . We made a couple tweaks this week in the way we were playing and it worked out. We just played the run better. Guys played hard.”
Florida State scored just one red-zone touchdown. After Thomas’ second interception was returned to the 2, Cook scored from there for a 10-3 lead with 11:46 left in the second quarter.
The Jackets, though, did not relent.
Their passion was as clear as the night air, and even though Golson completed 20-of-30 passes for 210 yards, FSU’s passing game was unable to dominate the game. Sacked three times, and hit many times beyond that, he never was able to work comfortably – even as the Jackets were stretched thinner and thinner.
Others stepped up.
In addition to banking a career-high six tackles and assists, Lawrence Austin blew up FSU’s final red-zone possession. When Golson threw into the end zone for wide receiver Travis Rudolph on third-and-goal from the 10 in the middle of the fourth quarter, Austin poked the ball from the receiver’s hands.
When it popped up in the air, Golden was there to intercept – the first turnover by FSU’s offense all season.
Johnson said, “they were due.”
Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher didn’t necessarily agree, but he saw the same moxie among the Jackets that they felt among themselves.
“First of all, give credit to Georgia Tech. They played a great ball game. They played very hard, and they were opportunistic in how they played,” he said. “We left too many points on the board in the red zone. We did not finish. We had the one critical turnover down there.”
Lance Austin eventually stepped onto center stage.
His 78-yard return of the field goal blocked by Gamble made the highlight shows and triggered a swarm onto Grant Field after the sophomore scored with no time left to bank a 22-16 for Tech.
There would have been no such magnificent moment if not for the superb and sustained work of the Jackets’ defenders, whom Freeman said kept telling each other, “ ‘Keep fighting, keep fighting. Adam was out there saying, ‘Let’s go, let’s go!’ “
That vibe survived the final seconds. The Jackets can hardly wait for their next chance, Saturday at Virginia.
“I don’t think I ever felt that much energy in our locker room after a win,” Gamble said. “It gives us a lot of confidence that we can play with anybody.”