Nov. 25, 2014
By Matt Winkeljohn
The Good Word
Synjyn Days came from the practice field on Monday wearing more than his standard grin, not quite a Joker-style smile because there’s nothing dark about the Georgia Tech senior running back, but maybe something more like this:
There is a simple explanation; it’s Georgia week and the Yellow Jackets are jacked up.
For the first time since 1942, both the No. 16/15 Jackets (9-2) and No. 8/9 Bulldogs (9-2) will carry nine wins into their annual end-of-season meeting, and Tech players were amped as they began their week of practice in pads.
That’s unusual, but because Tech did not have a game last week and therefore had a few days off, head coach Paul Johnson had them suit up for more intensity than on most Mondays. That added buzz.
Given the rest, and Saturday’s date in Athens, it was easy to see and feel a vibe on the Rose Bowl practice field, and in the John and Mary Brock Practice Facility.
“I know a lot of us older guys were jumping around during special teams, and a lot of us aren’t even on special teams,” Days said after practice. “We’re just excited to go 10-2, something our seniors haven’t done and Tech hasn’t done in a while so we’re excited for the opportunity.”
The Jackets last hit double-digit wins in 2009, finishing 11-3 after beating Clemson in the ACC Championship Game and falling to Iowa in the Orange Bowl.
Again, the Orange Bowl is possible for the Jackets, who after playing Georgia will on Dec. 6 play defending national champion Florida State in the ACC title game.
This is rare air that Tech is sniffing.
Only three times since 1957 have the Jackets won 10 or more games, and the 1990, ’98 and ’09 seasons were all, of course, particularly memorable.
In ’90, Tech (11-0-1) was ACC champion and co-national champion after beating Nebraska in the Citrus Bowl under head coach Bobby Ross.
George O’Leary and the Jackets (10-2) rode quarterback Joe Hamilton to glory and an ACC title in ’98 before wrapping the season with a win over Notre Dame in the Gator Bowl.
Both of those regular seasons ended in Athens with a W over the Bulldogs.
None of these Jackets were on the squad in ’09, when Tech fell to UGA before beating Clemson and bowing out against Iowa at 11-3.
A lot of them were around last season, however, when the Jackets built a 20-0 lead in Bobby Dodd Stadium only to fall 41-34 in two overtimes to Georgia.
There is no need to search for that extra little motivation
When senior right guard Shaquille Mason looks to latch onto something for an extra push, he goes right to, “Last year’s game, most definitely, because that was a reflection of all of us not keeping our foot on the gas,” he said. “This year, we’ve been doing a better job of that, finishing plays and drives.”
Johnson seemed suitably pleased by the start of the work week. He spoke quickly after Monday’s practice, with notable enthusiasm. He was happy to report that the Jackets are in fine health, and senior defensive tackle Shawn Green is back in action after down time to mend.
“The attitude and energy was good, like you would expect this week,” Johnson said. “We’ve got pretty high expectations.”
Some players chose to sort of slow-play the buildup to Saturday’s game as each young man is entitled to his own approach. Senior wide receiver DeAndre Smelter is excited, though not ready to match Days’ zeal – at least not yet.
“It’s a great opportunity. We’ve got a chance to end our season playing three good teams. We want to take advantage of it,” Smelter suggested. “We’re about to play some of the best teams we’ve played, especially in my career.”
Mason comes from a different place than a majority of his teammates. He did not grow up around the Tech-Georgia rivalry. In Columbia, Tenn., that wasn’t such a big deal. He’s grown into the game, however, and his last shot at it is days away.
“It’s definitely different [for an out-of-stater],” Mason said. “I can recall my freshman year, this rivalry game didn’t mean that much to me because I’m not from here. But after my freshman year, I was like, ‘This is a part of me now.’ Ever since then, I feel like I’m just as much into it [as Georgia natives].”
Mason was a bit more animated than usual in talking about the Bulldoggies, certainly more so than Smelter, but neither matched the leading local’s wattage.
Days’ ways were radiant after the first practice of the week.
This is a special game, and he’s known it to be that way for years and years while growing up in metro Atlanta.
“Yes sir, because growing up in this area everybody knows the Georgia-Tech rivalry,” he said “Most people choose to go for Georgia just because of the name brand, but I ended up coming to Tech because I felt like it was more of a home base for me. I felt better here.
“We’re definitely excited, and everybody on the team was saying, ‘To Hell with Georgia.’ The fans are excited, the team is excited, coach is excited. It’s a pretty big game.”
Well, yes it is.