Nov. 29, 2015
By Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word
They left Saturday with no tangible parting gifts, no snippets of hedge, nary a trophy nor title and not a single bowl gift bag will be found, yet Georgia Tech’s senior defenders did not close their Yellow Jacket careers empty hearted.
A 13-7 loss to Georgia closed a miserable season. Tech’s clouds, though, have a silver lining, and the way the Jackets played defense channeled their commitment to each other and their mission.
There is an intrinsic value in the shared grind of college football that only those who play can know, and senior cornerback D.J. White – whose overtime interception a season earlier sealed a Jackets’ win in Athens — wouldn’t trade away his Tech experience.
Sure, the Jackets surrendered 402 yards of total offense, and Sony Michel rushed for 149. Tech, however, was stout at enough key times in Bobby Dodd Stadium to keep alive hope until the final play flickered.
“Things didn’t go the way we wanted this season, but the memories that we created will last a lifetime, and the relationships,” said White, whose third-down tackle of Georgia wide receiver Terry Godwin at the 2-yard-line for no gain forced the Dogs’ first field goal, in the third quarter.
“The ball sometimes doesn’t bounce your way, but one thing I can say is everybody kept playing, kept playing hard.”
There is always in defeat plenty to lament, and Tech head coach Paul Johnson was not exactly effusive in evaluating his defense.
The Jackets bent frequently as the Dogs averaged 6.8 yards per play, completed 18-of-25 passes for 224 yards and kept sneaking passes to their fullbacks and tight end at painful times.
Yet Tech broke just a few times, a sum within the range of acceptability in a game where the offense punted away four of 11 possessions, turned the ball over three times, missed a field goal, was stalled on downs once, and ran one play before halftime to wrap another.
The big break came early.
Georgia won the coin toss and opted to receive. After converting their first third down, the Dogs would be stopped on 10-of-13 third downs from there, including three plays later. After Step Durham tackled Godwin a yard shy of a first down at the Tech 34-yard-line, the Jackets loaded for run. Georgia ran.
Michel hit off right tackle like a rocket, and with the help of two picture-perfect blocks aside the point-of-attack, and no safety to do anything about it, he rolled untouched into the south end zone for a 7-0 lead Georgia never lost.
Points matter more than everything else, and while the Dogs ran 51 more plays over the final 55:19, they scored just six more points.
The defense failed in one way. Tech did not register a takeaway.
Last season, the Jackets banked 29 thefts and they led to 137 points (in 14 games). This season, there were 17 takeaways, leading to 72 points.
“They did a good job protecting the ball,” White said. “They didn’t put their quarterback in too many situations to make a mistake as far as passing the ball. Running back-wise, they’ve got some guys that can tote pretty well.
“We were going for the ball the whole game because we knew we needed a turnover, but we just couldn’t get one.”
Georgia couldn’t score in the red zone.
On third-and-1 from the Jackets’ 12-yard-line, senior safety Demond Smith stuffed Michel for no gain. When the Bulldogs went on fourth down, their third possession ended when Smith and junior lineman Patrick Gamble stood up 251-pound fullback Quayvon Hicks on the second play of the second quarter.
A year ago, Tech made greater habits not only of turning takeaways into scores, but of turning plays like that into points.
It looked like that might happen Saturday.
The Jackets drove 74 yards in 11 plays, but failed in the red zone.
On third-and-8 from Georgia’s 14, Justin Thomas passed to Georgia safety Dominick Sanders.
In the minds of at least two senior defenders, the biggest difference between last season and this was simple.
“I think the answer is winning your close games,” said senior safety Jamal Golden. “Last year, we won our close games and this year we didn’t. The seasons were totally opposite.”
Freshman Brant Mitchell’s sack shortly before halftime thwarted a Georgia possession shortly before halftime, as the Bulldogs reached the 36.
Tech held Georgia on two more red-zone possessions, stopping the Bulldogs short of the end zone on their first try in the third quarter. Georgia kicked a field goal. After Golden tackled Godwin at the Jackets’ 20 a yard short of a first down on the second play of the fourth quarter, the Dogs again kicked for a 13-0 lead.
Red zone defense often is a barometer of success.
As the Jackets went 11-3 last season, only in their losses was the red zone defense a big problem. Duke scored 31 points on five such possessions, North Carolina scored 34 on five, and Florida State scored 23 on five.
When Tech won in overtime at Georgia, the Bulldogs scored on just three of six red zone possessions – 17 points.
Saturday, the Dogs scored six points on three red-zone possessions, but it wasn’t enough.
“It just kind of sucks that it’s a bad taste in your mouth that you can’t really do anything about now,” Golden said. “But that’s going to help me in life. Life’s not over just because this season is over. You have to move on. Me and the other 21 seniors who are graduating, we have to move on.
“Football is a game of life. It teaches you about life, and it’s going to help me further down the road.”
Against long odds, the Jackets manned up on defense.
“We always thought we were going to win no matter who went down,” Golden said of the season. “Next man up. Effort was never a problem…Sometimes, the ball bounces your way. Sometimes, it doesn’t.”
The Jackets never stopped working.
“It’s been special. It’s been real special,” White said. “I grew up a Tech fan. I followed the team back to the Calvin Johnson days, as far as I can remember. It was really special for me to stay in state, go to my favorite school, get a chance not just to play but make plays on a big stage…
“Football is a game where you have to have all three phases clicking to be a successful team. I think a lot of the time for us this year, we’d have one phase doing well but maybe another didn’t do as well. It was kind of alternating; we never really put it together.”