Nov. 28, 2016
Jon Cooper | The Good Word
They say what goes around comes around.
Count Georgia Tech faithful as believers after Saturday afternoon’s dramatic 28-27 win over Georgia at Sanford Stadium.
Flash back to Oct. 8. A deflected pass by Georgia Tech’s Corey Griffin set into motion a bizarre series of events that led to a wild, gut-wrenching, 37-34 loss at Pittsburgh. The defeat was the Jackets’ third-straight and left them at 3-3 after a 3-0 start.
On Saturday afternoon, a deflected pass — this time to Jackets’ corner Lance Austin — set into motion another wild course of events, again resulting in a wild finish.
Austin pulled in the carom of Georgia quarterback Jacob Eason’s pass, which was behind wide receiver Terry Godwin, who could manage only to get a hand on it. The INT gave the Yellow Jackets, down 27-21, the ball at the UGA 46 yard line with 3:39 to go in the ballgame.
“We were in zone coverage. I think Eason thought it was man,” said Austin. “The pass was kind of tipped right to me.”
The Jackets would cash in eight plays later. On third-and-goal from the six, A-back Qua Searcy faked a throw-back pass to quarterback Justin Thomas, sprinted toward the end zone, went airborn at the three and landed over the goal line. Harrison Butker’s PAT, which pulled him into a tie atop Tech’s all-time scoring list, made it 28-27.
That Austin would make a big defensive play hardly came as a surprise. He went into Saturday leading the ACC in pass break-ups (12) and his game-changing interception at UGA was his third of the season, second in the last two games and his third takeaway in last three games, all of which led to touchdowns.
“(No.) 17, somehow he’s always around the ball,” said linebacker P.J. Davis, referring to Austin’s uniform number. “He’s always making big plays,” added the senior, who had 12 tackles in his final regular-season game.
Of course, the defense believed that someone was going to make a play. That’s the way they’ve rolled in `16 and the reason the team has rolled over the second half of the season, closing 5-1 after heart-breaking loss at Pittsburgh.
“The defense, all season long, we’ve been `Keep pushing. Keep pushing,'” said fifth-year senior Patrick Gamble, who had 11 tackles and one stop behind the line of scrimmage from his defensive tackle position on Saturday. “We kept playing today, we got a chance to win the game for the team and we did it.”
Despite a hard push from Georgia’s running game throughout the afternoon, Tech’s D kept pushing back. UGA running backs Sony Michel and Nick Chubb ran for 263 yards (6.3 per rush) but 244 of those came in the first three quarters, as Georgia opened a 27-14 lead.
But Tech’s defense kept counting on the one thing it knew would keep morale high.
“Each other,” said Gamble. “We didn’t want to be that person to let the team down. We knew what we had to do, we believed in ourselves and played our assignments. We played a down at a time and a series at a time. We came out and fought.”
It’s a fight Johnson has become accustomed to seeing.
“We didn’t play perfect all day but we made plays,” he said. “It was kind of a microcosm of our season. We can’t get off the field, but in the second half we don’t give up a lot of points. When we had to, on defense, we held them to a couple of field goals. That was the difference in the game.
“We hung in there on defense,” he added. “That’s hard to do when they’re knocking you back and driving the ball and running the ball. But we hung in there. We got a huge stop when we didn’t make it on fourth down. So it was one of those games.”
It certainly was one of those games Georgia Tech has been playing lately. The defense picked up the offense after Searcy was thrown for a seven-yard loss on fourth-and-four at the Georgia 42, with the score still 27-14 in the fourth quarter.
“I told [the team], `It’s still a two-possession game. There’s still a lot of time.’ The game wasn’t out of reach,” said quarterback Justin Thomas, who, in his final visit to Athens, went 6-for-10 through the air for 164 yards (27.3 per completion) including connections of 64, 23 and 39 yards. The latter of those two long throws came on back-to-back plays, getting Tech out of the shadow of its goal posts on a fourth-quarter scoring drive that cut the Jackets’ deficit from 27-14 to 27-21.
“I think everybody was still poised,” Thomas continued about the 13-point fourth-quarter hole. “Nobody had his head down. We knew we had to score they’re going to stop them and give us the ball back at least one more time.”
“I definitely had faith in our guys,” said Searcy. “I knew not just one person but all of us would have to make a play. That’s what we did. I feel like we made a lot of plays to win the game.”
The defense made a bunch of plays in the fourth quarter for the second-straight week. On the series following the missed fourth down, Tech twice stuffed Chubb then forced an incompletion on third-and-five. It was UGA’s first three-and-out of the game. Over the final 15 minutes, Georgia managed only three first downs and 24 total yards. Their three possessions resulted in the punt and a pair of interceptions.
Tech’s offense similarly dominated in the final period, running 15 plays, gaining 140 yards, holding the ball for 9:34 and twice scoring touchdowns. It all added up to enough to the Jackets overcoming the 13-point deficit — the largest hole they have ever digged out of after three quarters during the Paul Johnson Era and the second-largest they ever overcame in a win over Georgia.
After Austin’s pick and Searcy’s dive, UGA still had 30 seconds left to try to rally. However, unlike in 2014, when Georgia Tech used the final 13 seconds to set up Butker’s game-tying 53-yard field goal on the final play, the Bulldogs never got as far as their own 40. Eason’s final desperation heave landed well short and safely in the arms of sophomore linebacker Brant Mitchell at the Tech 15.
“We knew we had to go out there and get a stop,” said Gamble of the Bulldogs’ last possession. “We were very confident. We were ready to go out there and win the football game for the team.”
Georgia Tech awaits its bowl game destination and opponent, knowing it has a chance for nine wins to put a nice bow on what would tie for the biggest bounce-back season in school history. A six-win turnaround has been done three times previously at Tech — by John Heisman (1904), William Alexander (1942) and Bobby Dodd (1951).
“After it looked like we were out of the conference race, our goal was to win nine games and we’ve got a chance,” said Johnson, who has authored three nine-win seasons at Tech and 10 in his coaching career. “When I said that people thought I was crazy but we have a chance. It’s a big deal and it’s something that we’ve fought for. Now they’re in that position.”