Sept. 18, 2010
By Jon Cooper
When your teammates vote you the player “Most likely to surprise people in 2010,” you officially qualify as a well-kept secret.
Redshirt freshman linebacker Brandon Watts was that player in this year’s poll.
After Georgia Tech’s 30-24 victory over North Carolina Saturday afternoon, it looks like the cat is out of the bag on Watts.
Kenan Field proved to be the perfect place for a coming-out party for the Tennille, Ga., native, who chalked up six tackles (four solo) in his first collegiate start. But after the game, Watts was more excited about the team’s debut in the win column in ACC play than his debut in the team’s participation column.
“It feels real good to get a victory,” he said. “Our first ACC game, on the road, we needed that.”
It’s not a stretch to say that the Yellow Jackets defense had a much-welcomed coming out party of its own.
“We have put a lot of pressure on our defense the last two games and we feel like in the second half they showed everybody what they can do,” said quarterback Joshua Nesbitt, who completed 3 of 4 passes for 76 yards, including a 23-yard touchdown pass to Roddy Jones, while rushing for a game-high 122 yards and a touchdown (his 122 yards, were seven more than B-Back Anthony Allen, whose 115 yards were a season high and two fewer than he had coming into the game).
After recovering one fumble in the first two games, the unit swiped two in three second-half drives, assuring that the game that was beginning to slip away remained in Tech’s favor.
The ball hawking was part of a challenge from Head Coach Paul Johnson at halftime.
“Coach Johnson told us, `Give me two turnovers and we’ll win the game.’ That’s what we did.”
The first of the fumble recoveries came on the first play after Georgia Tech came up snake eyes on a fourth-and-two at the Carolina 45, trailing 24-17. Brad Jefferson, Tech’s leading tackler on the day, recovered the ball after Tar Heels QB Tyler Yates coughed it up.
The Jackets needed five plays to tie the game. The key play of the drive was a Nesbitt screen pass off a scramble that A-Back Roddy Jones took 41 yards to the five-yard line. Two plays later, Nesbitt powered in from a yard out and the Tar Heels were on their heels, where they would remain the remainder of the game.
The second fumble, came early in the fourth quarter when UNC tight end Zack Pianalto was stripped by inside linebacker Steven Sylvester after a an 11-yard completion. Cornerback Rod Sweeting fell on the ball. The turnover led to a punishing 10-play, 25-yard drive ate up 5:28 and resulted in a Scott Blair’s third field goal of the game, a 36-yard fielder that insured the victory and a 30-24 final score that was horrifying déjà vu for the Tar Heels, who lost their opener in Atlanta against LSU by the same score.
The defense’s answering challenges was the theme for the day, as they not only handled Johnson’s halftime challenge to create turnovers but also the one they put on themselves to man up after a disappointing effort in Kansas last Saturday — a loss made all the more head-scratching by the Jayhawks’ 31-16 clunker at Southern Miss. Friday night.
“We had a little downfall last week, so we picked it back up this week,” said Watts. “We practiced hard this week and everybody stepped up to the plate and took the challenge.”
Despite allowing North Carolina running back Johnny White to ramble for 113 yards, Tech’s defense rose up when needed in the second half. It was simply a matter of making adjustments.
“North Carolina had two weeks to prepare for us, so they had a good idea of what we wanted to do in the first half,” said Watts. “We just made a couple of adjustments and went out and played hard in the second half.”
He also credited the offensive line’s work in the final 30 minutes.
“We feed off them,” he said. “They’re running the ball hard. We go out and play hard. The offense helped us out a lot by giving us time to make adjustments, by keeping the ball a lot. We just played hard and ran to the ball and made plays.”
Tech’s offense didn’t hold the ball for 42:06 as in last year’s 24-7 rout of the Tar Heels, but they did dominate time of possession on Saturday afternoon, holding the ball for 35:00 to Carolina’s 25:00. The Jackets really flexed their muscles in the second half, when they held a 20:30 to 9:30 edge in T.O.P.
The entire team will surely enjoy a more pleasant flight back to Atlanta than last Saturday’s trip. But the celebration will be similarly short-lived, as, come Monday, it’s back to work, this time, preparing for Russell Wilson and 3-0 North Carolina State.
“I’ve seen them a little bit. They’ve got a really good quarterback and a really athletic and a really good team,” said Watts. “We’re going to go out and practice hard, listen to our coaches, get our assignments and go out next Saturday and execute.”