Nov. 16, 2016
PREVIEW, TICKETS AND MORE: Georgia Tech Football vs. Virginia (Saturday at 12:30 p.m. – Bobby Dodd Stadium)
Jon Cooper | The Good Word
Over the course of a season college coaches carry a ton of emotion with them.
But there may not be a more emotional day than Senior Day.
Often it’s the last time their players get to play a sport they’ve played for much of their lives and is definitely is the last time they’ll do so in front of their college’s home fans. Senior Day also makes real that the end is near for the special coach-player relationship, in which the coach has been trusted by players’ families as guardian in developing their son in sports, as well as in life.
Saturday is Senior Day for Georgia Tech football as the Yellow Jackets host Virginia. Tech’s Paul Johnson will go through his 20th Senior Day as a head coach but still knows that the only given is that the emotion of the day won’t be easy to get through.
“You develop relationships with those guys and you get close with them,” said Johnson. “Anytime that you get to the end, it gets kind of emotional for you as a coach out there on the field because when they come out with their parents for the ceremony, you realize it’s the last time. From the time you started recruiting them until now, you’ve spent what is for the most part five years with them. It’s neat to see them move on and hopefully be successful outside of football for most of them but it’s still kind of bittersweet.”
Johnson also knows that the Cavaliers won’t be easy to get through. While they come in at 2-8 and riding a five-game losing streak, Johnson warned against looking past them.
“Virginia is a lot better team than its record. They’ve had a real issue with turning the ball over but they have been in every game,” he said. “We have to get ready to play our best game. We have yet to play our best game on offense, defense and special teams all together, so that’s the goal. There’s a lot for us to play for. It’s Senior Day and I am sure Virginia is going to come in here and play maybe their best game. So you have to get ready for it.”
The Jackets’ offense, which is expected to be bolstered by the return of senior quarterback Justin Thomas, senior center Freddie Burden, junior A-back J.J. Green and junior offensive tackle Andrew Marshall, has its work cut out dealing with Virginia’s defense. The unit is led by inside linebacker Micah Kiser, who begins play with 231 career tackles (10.5 tackles per game), and free safety Quin Blanding, whose 342 career stops leave him five shy of the Cavaliers’ career mark by a DB. The duo ranks first and second in the ACC in tackles (Kiser with 104 and Blanding with 100).
“[UVA head coach] Bronco [Mendenhall] historically has always been good defensively,” said Johnson. “They’ve got the two leading tacklers in the league, in [Micah] Kiser, the linebacker, and [Quin] Blanding, the safety. Blanding may very well be one of the best defensive players in the league, if not the best. They’ve got some good players on defense. They’ve played pretty good until they just kind of kill themselves with turnovers. I fully expect they’re going to come in here and have a good plan.”
Johnson would like his defense to follow the script from last week’s 30-20 win in Blacksburg over No. 18 Virginia Tech. The opportunistic Jackets recorded four turnovers (including two interceptions against quarterback Jerod Evans, doubling Evans’ season total), and turned them into 17 points. The defense had nine turnovers in the previous nine games and had scored just 14 points off its opponents’ miscues.
The Cavs have been generous, turning the ball over 11 times in their previous five games, and have gotten progressively worse each week during that stretch — one turnover each vs. Pittsburgh on Oct. 15 and UNC on Oct. 22, two a week later vs. Louisville, three on Nov. 5 at Wake Forest and four last week against Miami. Seven of the 11 turnovers resulted in points — six touchdowns and a field goal (Miami missed an FGA last week). The miscues were crucial in seven-point losses against the Cardinals and Demon Deacons and allowed the Hurricanes to pull away.
Johnson would like to see the turnover trend continue and hopes the his defensive unit will be more confident in that pursuit as they look to build on last week.
“You hope that they’ve got some confidence and some juice, some energy,” he said. “The way the [Virginia Tech] game started was perfect for it because we got a couple of turnovers, we got ahead, we made some big plays on defense, so we got a little juice going. Hopefully you can carry it over. I’m sure they were tired of hearing it.”
The defense and the entire team is fired up about hearing the possibilities that lie ahead if they can keep playing well.
Rejuvenated by the win over the Hokies, the Jackets have reset their goals. They’re focused on getting to nine wins, which would mean running the table — beating the Cavaliers, winning at Georgia next Saturday, then taking care of whomever they play in a bowl game. Even if their final destination won’t necessarily be the where they’d originally hoped, closing by winning their final four games would be sweet, especially coming off a three-win season last year.
“You have goals and you try to play for them. My job, once it looks like those initial goals are gone, is to try to find a carrot to stick in front of them to say `Here is what we’re trying to do now,'” Johnson said. “Guys are smart. You start out 1-3 in the league, they can figure out that you probably aren’t going to win your division, so you keep playing until you are mathematically eliminated. My mantra was `We still have a chance.’
“Had we gone to Chapel Hill and won, we would still have a chance but we didn’t,” he added. “So my next thing was bowl eligibility, a winning season, get to nine [wins]. I’ve told our team since that point, `We have a chance to get to nine wins.’ If you can get to nine wins, that’s a pretty successful season. So that’s the thing that you try to dangle in front of them. Every team when the season starts has a goal to win their conference and play in the playoffs but there are 124 that fall short.”
Getting back to a bowl was something that never left the goal board.
“I’ve been a head coach for 20 years [and] we’ve been in the postseason 18 of the 20. It’s not something that I wasn’t expecting,” Johnson said. “It’s not like we’ve missed or I’ve missed a lot of times. So I expected to be there.”
Having reached bowl-eligibility and knowing that they’ll get to play beyond next Saturday’s regular-season finale in Athens, the Jackets want to give the senior class a big finish to what has been an interesting ride.
“They have won a lot of big games here,” Johnson said. “They were a part of the team that finished seventh in the country and won the Orange Bowl and they’ve been in a couple of ACC Championship games, so they’ve seen a lot of football here.”