ATLANTA – “The Catch. Sweet Redemption.”
These words conjure up images of game-winning touchdown catches and last-second heroics in the minds of wide receivers around the country. Sweet dreams of highlight-reel plays and upset victories make the hard work of college football worth the sweat and tears.
For Georgia Tech sophomore Kerry Watkins, that dream became reality against fourth-ranked Clemson on Saturday.
With seven seconds remaining on the game clock and the Yellow Jackets trailing the Tigers 28-24, the flanker from LaPlace, La., stumbled, picked himself up, dove through the air and reeled in the game-winning touchdown pass with his out-stretched left hand to give Tech a 31-28 victory.
“That was the best catch of my life,” said Watkins, who is second on the team with five touchdown receptions as Tech prepares to host Virginia Thursday at 8 p.m. at Bobby Dodd Stadium. Entering Tech’s final home game of the year, which will be televised nationally by ESPN, Watkins has caught 18 passes for 300 yards this season. But none of them have been as big as his last one.
“I had never been in a winning situation like that, in the spotlight in front of millions of people on television,” said Watkins. “I was like, ‘Wow!’ It was kind of unbelievable that I got that chance again and that I was able to come back and make that play. It was very exciting and emotional for me.”
This season has been one of emotional peaks and valleys for Watkins. Against NC State on Sept. 21, Watkins scored the game-tying touchdown with 1:20 left in regulation on a seven-yard reception. Then minutes later – on the same play in which he became the game’s hero against Clemson – Watkins dropped a catch in overtime as the Jackets fell to the Wolfpack.
Saturday’s game was very big for the Yellow Jackets, who vaulted into the Top 25 for the first time this season. It was also big for Watkins, personally, as he gained redemption for his last-second disappointment in Raleigh, N.C.
“I went into the game real focused on making big plays, making a lot of plays,” Watkins said. “One of my goals in that game in particular was to catch everything that came my way. Going into that last catch, it was a real shocker, a thriller, for them to put me right back in there, the same exact play from NC State. If my number was called, I knew I was going to make that play.”
When Watkins first heard the plan for the Jackets’ final play, he didn’t realize that the ball was coming his direction.
“I heard the play, but I didn’t know that I was going to move out to the wide position,” he said. “I thought I was still in the slot. When I came to the sideline, I was told I was going to play offside. I was like, ‘OK, here we go again. I’m not going to let this one get away from me.’ I did everything in my will to get over and try to get the ball.”
Focused on the task, Watkins lined up ready to score the game-winning touchdown. Midway through the play, however, Clemson cornerback Darrel Crutchfield knocked Watkins to the ground. Watkins didn’t panic.
“I really didn’t realize the ball was still coming my way until after I got back up out of my stumble,” Watkins explained. “I turned around and I kind of stopped and I saw the ball coming. That’s when I dove at it and brought it in with one hand. (George Godsey) threw it up there and I reacted to it at the last second and I grabbed it and brought it in.”
Watkins has replayed that scene in his mind countless times, and watched it on television numerous others.
“I’ve seen it about 10 or more times,” Watkins said. “I leave the TV on SportsCenter just to watch it. My parents called me after the game. They told me how their phone was ringing off the hook, how everywhere they go everybody’s talking about it. It’s in the paper everywhere. It’s unbelievable.”
Watkins said that while “The Catch” was great for him personally, the win was most important.
“It means a great deal,” Watkins said. “We’re trying to earn our respect that no one is trying to give us right now. We knew all along that we could have beaten the No. 2 team (Florida State). We’re two plays away from being undefeated right now.”
The Yellow Jackets are a confident team. With a five-point loss to Florida State and an overtime defeat at NC State their only blemishes, the Jackets believe they can play with anyone. A fourth-ranked Clemson team was no exception.
“They’re the same type team that we are,” Watkins said. “They never quit. We knew it was going to be a 60-minute game when we first got there. We knew that it would be a dogfight. They’re a great team.”
After Clemson scored to take the lead with 1:52 remaining in the game, Watkins said the Georgia Tech offense took the field confident and poised.
“We were just very patient, ” he said. “We had no doubts because we’ve won about two games like that. That’s our strength. Everybody was very calm and relaxed, made the plays, took it down the field. Everyone was very poised. It’s a situation we go through every week in practice.”
For Watkins and his Tech teammates, practice paid off on Saturday. Yellow Jacket dreams came true when the sophomore receiver brought in “The Catch.”