Oct. 9, 2016
Jon Cooper | The Good Word
Weird things happen when Georgia Tech plays Pittsburgh, regardless of where they meet. But things get especially bizarre at Heinz Field.
Saturday afternoon was no exception, as the Yellow Jackets overcame a pair of 11-point deficits to take the lead, only to see a deflection turn an under-thrown pass into the tying score, then fail to convert on fourth-and-inches in their own territory — they’d been 7-for-12 on the year on fourth down and 2-for-3 in the game — and, finally, see a game-winning field goal hit the upright and ricochet through for the game-winning points.
The 37-34 loss was the Jackets’ third straight, dropping their record to 3-3.
It’s the kind of loss that drives you crazy emotionally and makes you sick to your stomach physically.
“It was a gut-wrencher. It was a tough one to lose,” said Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson.
“We kind of fought and clawed our way back in it, took the lead, and then they score on a tipped pass. If I had to do it over again at the end of the game [on fourth down], I would have probably still gone for it but I would have called a different play. I think the way the game was going, I felt like we could make half a yard and we didn’t do it. That’s on me. That’s my responsibility and I’ll take the blame for that.”
The sanity-twisting, game-ending barrage over the final 4:05 can be summed up in three plays.
The first came on Pittsburgh’s third-and-nine from its own 26, when quarterback Nathan Peterman threw long over the middle toward tight end Scott Orndoff. Tech strong safety Corey Griffin could only get one hand on the under-thrown duck and ended up goosing it ahead to Orndoff, who hauled in the tipped ball behind the Yellow Jackets’ defense and ran for the game-tying 74-yard touchdown.
That would be followed by the Jackets not converting on fourth-and-one from their own 34 on the ensuing possession.
Finally, on fourth-and-nine from the Tech 13, Panthers kicker Chris Blewitt hit the game-winning 35-yard field goal, which hit off the right upright before somehow going through for the wild game’s deciding points.
The finish made for a long flight home, a restless night of sleep and a Sunday morning with the first words possibly being, “What the heck happened yesterday?”
However, some of what did happen was positive for the Jackets.
While the defense struggled for much of the day — Pittsburgh had 407 yards of total offense, scored touchdowns on its first three possessions of the day, recorded points on seven of its nine possessions overall and went 6-for-11 on third down — it rose up late, allowing only two second-half field goals prior to Pitt’s bizarre scoring barrage over the final 3:50 of the ballgame. The Jackets’ defense also grabbed a late turnover that led to Tech scoring the go-ahead points on J.J. Green’s 10-yard touchdown run with 5:22 to go.
“We expected them to come out with a lot of different formations that we’ve seen on film and they came out with a couple formations we haven’t seen before,” said sophomore linebacker Brant Mitchell, whose first-career fumble recovery put the Jackets in business to break the 27-27 tie. “But, the thing about us, we just got to keep our eyes on the end of the day and play to our standard.”
“They’ve done pretty well against everybody they’ve played with that stuff,” said Johnson. “I thought we played it better in the second half but we were having a hard time stopping them.”
That being said, the Yellow Jackets’ offense also proved hard to stop, scoring on six of its nine possessions. Tech didn’t turn the ball over and saw a return of its big-play capabilities.
The Jackets had six big plays (20 yards-plus), one more than they’d combined for over the past two games, and scored on three of them, one more than they had in the previous five games. Included in that was Green’s 96-yard kickoff return, the Jackets’ first touchdown on kick return since Jamal Golden’s 100-yarder on Nov. 10, 2012 at North Carolina.
Tech also added three big scoring runs, highlighted by Clinton Lynch’s 45-yard scamper down the left sideline off a pitch that knotted the score at 27-all early in the final period.
Finally, the Jackets had 10 running plays that gained at least 10 yards, coming from seven different players. Two of those, Lynch’s game-tying 45-yarder and Green’s go-ahead 10-yarder in the fourth quarter, hit paydirt.
Unfortunately for the Jackets, the inability to hit a little play — the fourth-and-inches at the 35, which they missed by a chain link with 1:47 to go — will be the legacy of the game.
“My philosophy has always been on fourth down, if you have a play you think has a good chance to work, you run it,” said Johnson. “It was just man-on-man and they knocked us back. I really felt like Dedrick [Mills] would get the first down, even if we didn’t get a whole lot. He’s a pretty strong runner. Woulda’, shoulda’, coulda’. We could have tossed the ball. They had a hard time playing the toss. Give them credit, they made a play. They stuffed us.”
The Jackets nearly got a reprieve and overtime, as Blewitt, who last year beat the Jackets with a career- and school-record 56-yarder and became Pittsburgh’s all-time leading field-goal kicker earlier in the day, banked in his chip shot off the top of the right upright.
While the mental scar left by the crazy finish could be a deep one, the Jackets know that they have to dig deep and bounce back next Saturday, when they host Georgia Southern. The Eagles, which fell to 3-2 last week after blowing a 23-10 lead and losing in the final nine seconds of its Sun Belt Conference game at Arkansas State, nearly upended the Jackets in 2014.
“Mentally, it’s going to be hard to recover,” said wide receiver Brad Stewart, who caught three passes for 46 yards but had to come back to catch Thomas’ third-and-11 pass on Tech’s final possession, resulting in only a 10-yard gain.
“It’s just difficult to be so close, to have the momentum we had and with how hard we played. It was just so close. It is what it is. It happens in football. We’ve just got to move on.”
“This was definitely a heartbreaker,” added Griffin. “Everything was going our way. We had momentum. They got a touchdown off of a deflected ball. There’s nothing we can do but move on to Georgia Southern.”
Griffin feels that with so much at stake and and still a lot of football to play, the Jackets will regroup and play with extra ferocity, beginning next week.
“We’ve got to take a stand on our season,” he said. “I’m not for losing. In high school, I only lost two games. So I’m not used to losing. Losing will never be acceptable to me. A loss like this will probably haunt me until we face them next year.”