Sept. 14, 2014
By Matt Winkeljohn
The Good Word
In one of the wildest recent Georgia Tech wins in Bobby Dodd Stadium, Saturday’s contest came down to a wing, a prayer and a replay in between.
The Yellow Jackets escaped Georgia Southern on Justin Thomas’ 13-yard TD pass – a wing — to Deon Hill with 23 seconds remaining for a 42-38 edge. That lead held, but without taking the game’s only turnover minutes earlier, Tech might be licking big wounds today. To a degree, the Jackets (3-0) were left to console themselves after their 35-10 halftime lead devolved into a 38-35 deficit.
“We came out there [in the second half], and they came out and kicked our butts,” senior B-back Zack Laskey said. “Right now, it’s kind of a bittersweet deal. We won the game, but in some ways I almost feel like we lost. We had our foot on their throats . . . and we let them come back and take the lead.”
That lone turnover came down to technology.
Tech’s game-winning drive, which Thomas made magical, was jump-started by a Maalox moment that cameras somehow soothed.
The Eagles, who nearly won at N.C. State two weeks ago in their first game as an FBS school, had stormed from a 25-point hole to take a 38-35 lead with 28 consecutive points.
Then, they were driving in the game’s waning moments.
At minimum, they were burning clock. At max, they might have gone up by two scores. In the middle, GSU might have tried for a field goal that would’ve stretched their three-point lead left the Jackets needing a touchdown rather than a field in the game’s dawn in order to avert disaster.
And then, fourth-year senior Jamal Golden fought off a block to stretch out his right hand and help Tech avoid more pain.
Here’s what happened: GSU was leading 38-35 with five or so minutes left and driving yet again – the Eagles gained 398 yards in the second half – and was on the verge of sealing the deal. Eagle quarterback Favian Upshaw, in the game because starter Kevin Ellison injured a shoulder, optioned left.
The ball hit the ground after a white-gloved hand knocked it down.
Tech freshman defensive end KeShun Freeman pounced on the orb, although officials ruled the play was a forward pass and therefore incomplete.
It went to replay officials, though, although Tech head coach Paul Johnson said he would have challenged if it did not because, “The [Tech assistant coaches] in the box said it wasn’t forward [pass]. They said it was sideways.”
This was not a good time. As senior linebacker Quayshawn Nealy said, “I’m not going to lie; I was a little skeptical about it.”
Freeman was concerned, too.
“I was just praying in my mind: God, just let the referees see the same thing we saw,” he said. “It was just amazing once the referees [over-turned] it. It was great.”
Well, yes that replay was for Tech, “a big sigh of relief,” Nealy said.
GSU coach Willie Fritz had a different assessment, saying, “I thought it was a forward pass, but they’ve got all the replay technology. Hopefully, they got it right.”
Golden was not only being blocked on the perimeter by a bigger player, but likely held.
“I was actually pretty surprised because my job on the play was to go outside and set the edge. If it would have got out to the pitch man, I was supposed to make make the tackle,” he said. “I just based the blocker and I kinda seen the ball, and it was just a reaction to bat the ball. I was pretty surprised.”
Golden’s previously broken wing gave the Jackets life.
With 4:12 left in the game, Tech took over at its own 28.
Thomas led the Jackets in rushing with a career-high 137 yards on 20 carries (some being scrambles), and scored the game’s first touchdown on an 8-yard scamper when he kept on what appeared to be an option right.
His right arm delivered the winning blow.
When you pass for 188 yards and four touchdowns at QB, you’re doing more than what head coach Paul Johnson typically asks even if you miss on 12 of 17 passes after a 6-for-7 start.
“It wasn’t awful, but I feel like it could be better,” the third-year sophomore said. “I missed a few targets, easy throws that I make every day. I feel like coach Johnson has confidence with me because he came back with the same plays.”
And for sure, the QB is not in the doghouse when the game-winning play, at the end of an 11-play, 72-yard drive, was largely about the signal caller.
He ran for 12 yards on a draw on third-and-7, and 14 yards on another draw moments later to put the Jackets at the GSU 16. Laskey, Hill and B.J. Bostic contributed rushes of significance before that.
Laskey carried for 3 yards on first down, and Thomas threw incomplete on second. On third down, GSU linebacker Edwin Jackson of Atlanta’s Westlake High School walked near the line of scrimmage before the snap. As he shot a gap untouched on a blitz, Thomas made like Houdini. He started left and spun hard right to scramble out of harm’s way at least for a couple moments.
“When he stepped up, I kind of had my eyes on him,” Thomas recalled. “When he came free, I knew I had to make him miss.”
Two more Eagles pursued Tech’s quarterback as he rolled right. Meanwhile, on the backside of the play – to the left — Hill lolly gagged to allow GSU linebackers to set their sights elsewhere. Then, he slithered across the middle hard toward the right sideline.
“It was a play that we practiced a lot this week,” the senior A-back explained. “With the flow of the linebackers I had to be patient . . . Wait about two counts, and go.”
Hill evaded linebacker coverage, although Thomas did not see him immediately.
“I wouldn’t say the whole way, but as I always say we have the 334 connection,” the quarterback said in referencing both players being from similar areas of Alabama. “I know where he’s going to be, and he’s going to be there when he’s supposed to be.” Thomas threw on the run, and as the ball arrived at the streaking Hill, GSU safety Antonio Glover of Douglas County High started to make a high play. He left his feet to go for the ball.
The pass arrived at Hill before Glover arrived at the ball, however, and when Deon caught it, Glover was out of balance and not in a solid position to try to make a tackle near the 6-yard line.
Hill zipped into the end zone, and there was joy.
Johnson lauded Thomas.
“I thought he played great and he made a play to win the game,” the coach said. “He made the linebacker miss. He had some nice runs on quarterback draws . . . I thought he played great on the last drive.”
Fast Start The game’s first play was a doozy. Senior A-back Charles Perkins went around right end on a counter play for 63 yards.
Left guard Trey Braun and left tackle Bryan Chamberlain both pulled to make key blocks, and Perkins stiff-armed Glover before taking off down the right sideline. Perkins was thrown for a 4-yard loss on his only other carry, and left the game in the first half with an undisclosed injury. He was on the sideline in the second half, but not in uniform.
More Of The Same
Thomas scored on an 8-yard run two plays after the long Perkins run, and the Jackets were off and rolling.
They scored touchdowns with their first five possessions on drives of 75, 84, 84, 68 and 86 yards. Tech held the ball for 21:29 in the first half.
Tech’s next five possessions added up to 72 total yards, and all ended in punts. “I would probably say that the intensity went down a little bit,” Thomas said of the offense. “We get up like that, and we’ve got to keep it going.”
Like A Virus
Tech’s defensive energy waned simultaneously as the Eagles scored touchdowns on their first four possessions of the second half, capping drives of 75, 85, 83 and 94 yards. Tackling was especially poor, and GSU converted four of five third downs and a fourth down in that stretch.
“We got complacent, and those guys kept fighting,” Nealy said. “Next thing you know, they’re back in the ball game and on top.”
Georgia Southern had 10 plays go for 20 or more yards Saturday, and eight came in the second half.
After halftime, the Eagles had runs of 32, 38 and 25 yards by quarterback Kevin Ellison and for 20 yards by running back Devin Scott. They also had pass plays of 43, 68, 28 and 23 yards.
In the first half, GSU scored on a 69-yard run by running back Matt Breida, and had a 24-yard pass play.
“That’s one of our big factors to the game. We call them X plays – 20 yards or more. That’s actually what [nearly] beat us,” Golden said. “We basically shut down their base offense, and they started throwing it around a little bit and we just started giving up too many X plays.”
Four of Harrison Butker’s seven kickoffs were touchbacks (one hit the crossbar), and one went out of bounds to give GSU the ball at the 35. The Eagles had kickoff returns of 13 and 27 yards, and returned one of Ryan Rodwell’s five punts for 11 yards. Four of Rodwell’s kicks left GSU inside of its 20-yard line, and one was a touchback as he averaged 43.8 yards per boot.
Tech’s return game was similarly modest.
All three GSU punts were fair caught by the Jackets, who had kickoff returns of 25 and 14 yards by Broderick Snoddy, and 22 and 14 yards by Golden.
Redshirt freshman Shamire Devine gained playing time at left guard, freshman Andrew Marshall played some at center, and junior Errin Joe saw action at left tackle. In their first action after serving two-game suspensions, wide receiver Darren Waller had two receptions for 30 yards, including a 4-yard touchdown, and A-back Dennis Andrews had two carries for 14 yards.
Nealy led the Jackets with eight solo tackles, while linebacker Paul Davis was in on seven combined tackles and assists. End Rod Rook-Chungong and tackle Shawn Green combined for Tech’s only sack, and in his first start, freshman end KeShun Freeman had four tackles. Golden had two of Tech’s four tackles for lost yardage.