Jan. 1, 2015
By Matt Winkeljohn
The Good Word
With your mind’s eye, you can see what happened after the Orange Bowl because — like Georgia Tech players – you were excited enough after the 49-34 win over No. 7 Mississippi State, to do a jail-break jig.
No wonder, then, that the 12th-ranked Yellow Jackets broke into song.
All-America right guard Shaquille Mason won’t soon forget.
“This probably ranks, to me, right there with Georgia if not a tad bit higher,” he said after one of the Jackets’ two biggest wins. “The hard work we put in…in January, we put it on our goal board to win the Orange Bowl…
“In the locker room all the seniors, we sang a little R&B song for the rest of the team…it was Isaiah [Johnson]’s idea.”
The ballad of choice, “End of the Road,” by Boyz II Men, said plenty about a team fabric that has been so central to such a special season. Key refrain: “Although we’ve come to the end of the road, Still I can’t let go.”
Tech went 11-3, closing the season with three wins in a four-game gauntlet against four teams that will all finish ranked, and were all ranked at one time or another in the top 10. The fact they fell by two points to defending ACC and national champion Florida State stings, but will not interfere with singing.
This team, after all, was picked by members of the ACC media to finish fifth in the ACC’s Coastal division!!
Against those less-than-modest expectations, the Jackets hummed.
Many Tech fans have ached for moments like those provided in 2014, the first year since 1998 the Jackets beat Clemson and Georgia and won a bowl game all in the same season.
That was a pretty good year; the Jackets were ACC champions, won 21-19 in Athens, and then beat Notre Dame in the Gator Bowl.
Almost ever since, the Jackets and the ACC have been jailed behind a variety of uncomfortable perceptions, and the primary jailer was Georgia and the SEC.
It says here the biggest reason the Jackets flipped the narrative is that because they feel so indebted to each other. They busted their tails on and off the field for sake of a brotherhood, and that is never a given in any game or grind.
One need not be a front-line Jacket to understand.
Sophomore defensive end Rod Rook-Chungong started the first four games of the season before settling into a role among the rarely deployed. Wednesday, he played as if propelled by a force greater than himself.
His third-down sack ended MSU’s second possession of the game, not long after the Bulldogs whiffed on fourth down to snub the first.
Rook-Chungong’s first fumble recovery of the season, after safety Jamal Golden jarred a ball loose in the third quarter, sent the Jackets on their way to a 42-20 lead. The points were put up by Thomas, on a 15-yard option right.
Thomas’ third rushing score garnered a whole lot more attention that Rook-Chungong’s three tackles, sack and fumble recovery.
Roderick was alright with that. The Jackets were better this season than in many years because egos and agendas were set aside long ago.
“It’s what coach Johnson always says, we have way better chemistry and we play better for each other. It was just more camaraderie,” Rook-Chungong said. “I felt we did this season, especially with Justin at quarterback.
“It started last winter, when we were doing extra sprints and everything, and we knew we had to work even harder to be just as good as last year.”
Seventh-ranked Mississippi State pumped 605 yards of total offense, and splendid quarterback Dak Prescott passed for an Orange-Bowl record 453 yards in what may have been his last game before he goes to the NFL.
The Bulldogs also scored on a Hail Mary pass on the last play of the first half to pull within a point, and MSU benefitted from a non-call in the first half where the Jackets forced and recovered a fumble only to have officials miss otherwise.
Yet the Jackets won.
They made more timely big plays than the Bulldogs.
Tech’s defense stiffened twice in the first half to force field goals in the red zone, and didn’t give up a point in the first or third quarters – when the Jackets outscored MSU by a combined 35-0. Tech also held on three times as MSU went for it on fourth down four times.
Obviously, the offense did its thing, rushing for an Orange Bowl record 452 yards. Synjyn Days went for 171 and three touchdowns, and quarterback and OB MVP Thomas added 121yards and three scores.
More than anything, the Jackets just kept fighting, and not for the first time.
It would’ve been easy to fret after Fred Ross caught Prescott’s deflected heave for a 42-yard touchdown as time expired in the first half.
After the Jackets had moved ahead 21-13 on a spiffy, time-consuming, 12-play, 82-yard drive with just 29 seconds left in the second quarter, the Bulldogs wasted very little time in countering.
Yet Johnson did not fret in the locker room, and neither did players.
“I’m just so proud of these guys. They’ve been so resilient all year,” the coach said after the game. “We had the momentum shift on us right before half…they just won’t quit. They play hard all the time.
“We talked about it at halftime. We knew if we scored every time we had it, we couldn’t lose.”
The Jackets came close to that, scoring touchdowns on their first four possessions of the second half.
Within the clenching thrust, Days played much like former Tech B-backs who eventually made their way to the NFL.
On the second snap after halftime, he didn’t look like a former quarterback or A-back. Gosh, why hasn’t he been at B-back all along?
He bounced an interior run outside left, ran through two tackles, juked a third would-be tackler, and tightroped the sideline for a 69-yard scoring run.
It was standard recent fare.
After rushing for 561 yards and 10 touchdowns in his first 40 career games as a Yellow Jacket reserve quarterback and A-back, Days, ripped off 835 yards and eight touchdowns in his last seven.
That move to B-back after Zach Laskey injured a shoulder didn’t hurt Days, or the Jackets. “It’s honestly amazing to see how Synjyn bounces around and never gets discouraged,” Mason said. “I’m proud of him.”
That was quite a conversion by Johnson and his staff, not unlike some other personnel moves made during the season by defensive coordinator Ted Roof.
“It was definitely a great way to break in the year,” Days said. “Back in January, we met separately and we wanted this team to be different. We’ve done that. Being resilient all year when pretty much everybody doubted us…
“Sometimes, I think about it, but God has a plan, and I trust the guys playing. We knew they couldn’t stop us if we didn’t stop ourselves.”
The head coach agreed, saying, “It’s like we say, `Team wins.’ These guys care for each other, and they play for each other.”
Mason and fellow senior Quayshawn Nealy, the linebacker who so often seems to be in the middle of business on his side of the ball, keep a chatter line going.
They keep track of each other’s units within games.
“Always, always,” Mason said. “I’m definitely talking them up and telling them we’re going to put the ball in end zone. When I came off the field after a TD, [Quayshawn] came up and said, `You know if anybody’s got your back, it’s me.’
“This team’s chemistry…just the way everybody was meshing, always joking, and always clowning on each other. It all started last summer, for sure.”