9 takeaways from Tech-Georgia

Georgia Tech right guard and team captain Shaquille Mason with the spoils of victory after the Yellow Jackets' 30-24 overtime win over Georgia Saturday (AJC photo by Hyosub Shin)

Georgia Tech right guard and team captain Shaquille Mason with the spoils of victory after the Yellow Jackets’ 30-24 overtime win over Georgia Saturday (AJC photo by Hyosub Shin)

1. They will largely be afterthoughts, but two of the biggest plays made Saturday were tackles by cornerback Chris Milton and safety Isaiah Johnson. Milton tracked down Georgia running back Nick Chubb after he broke free down the left sideline in the first quarter – he eluded Johnson along the way – bringing him down at the 1-yard line. (Demond Smith slowed him down slightly by diving at his feet, giving Milton enough time to come from the far side of the field to knock him out of bounds.)

Two plays later, Johnson met Chubb in mid-air, jarring the ball loose and allowing for linebacker Tyler Marcordes to recover it. Milton’s hustle play helped prevent a 14-0 lead.

Johnson tracked down kicker Marshall Morgan as he ran for the goal line on his fake field goal in the fourth quarter, again coming from the opposite field to knock Morgan out of bounds at the 3-yard line. A touchdown would have lifted Georgia into a 21-14 lead with about 11 minutes to go. Instead, Tech forced a field goal by stopping the Bulldogs three times from first-and-goal from the 3-yard line, as cornerback D.J. White brought down Chubb on first down, linebackers Anthony Harrell  and Beau Hankins brought him down on second down and quarterback Hutson Mason threw incomplete on third down. Georgia had to settle for a field goal and a 17-14 lead, keeping the Jackets within a field goal.

It’s emblematic of the way the defense has played. It has given up big plays on occasion, but has rarely stopped giving effort. By doing so, it twice forced Georgia to have to re-load and try to score a touchdown from inside the Tech 5-yard line, which it couldn’t, to its detriment in the overtime loss.

2. Cornerback D.J. White came through with another game-changing play. It is remarkable the number of times he has made such a big imprint on games this season. To visit again– against Virginia Tech, the interception after the Jackets tied the game late in the fourth quarter, allowing the Jackets to score the game-winning field goal as time expired. Against Pittsburgh, chasing down running back James Conner for the forced fumble and touchback. Against N.C. State, the 48-yard interception return for a touchdown. Against Clemson, an interception that gave the Jackets the ball back inside Clemson territory and enabled them to go up 19-3 early in the third quarter, the beginning of the end for the Tigers.

Finally, the game-ending interception of Mason in Georgia’s possession of overtime. Looking at it again, it wasn’t an easy interception to make. It was in pretty close range and Mason fired the ball at wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell. White out-positioned Mitchell to get in the path of the ball, but it was the sort of play that typically results in a pass breakup. Given that it was second-and-goal from the Tech 9-yard line, it was a significant play, in that the Bulldogs would have had two more shots to get in the end zone and then win it on an extra point.

Defensive coordinator Ted Roof said this about White last Tuesday: “He’s gotten a lot better. I tell you, looking back, that play he made at Pitt, that kind of spurred us on. You never know what flips it. We’ve got a lot of football left to play, but I think that, looking back, that was a big kind of jump start to us getting going.”

3. How high will Tech get in the College Football Playoff rankings? It’s hard to say. I was talking with someone in the press box – at least I think I was; I may have just overheard someone say this (it was a long day) – who said that it sort of seemed like the selection committee was making it up as it went along. (Come to think of it, this may have been a conversation at Thanksgiving.)

Case in point, in the teleconference last week, committee chair Jeff Long said one of the criteria for judging a team was what its opponent’s CFP ranking was at the time that the team played it. To some degree, I understand it – as I wrote before the Virginia game, Tech’s 1990 win over Virginia is memorable because Virginia was No. 1 at the time. That the Cavaliers ultimately finished 8-4 is something of an afterthought. I guess the committee apparently works in somewhat the same way.

But at the same time, I’m not sure I’d put so much weight in “ranking at the time of defeat.” I think a team ultimately bears out what it is over the course of the season. To wit – that Tech barely beat Georgia Southern looks far more palatable now that it’s the Sun Belt Conference champion than it did in September, when it was an FBS arrival that was supposed to be an also-ran.

At any rate, of the 15 teams ahead of No. 16 Tech, five of them lost this weekend – No. 4 Mississippi State (to No. 19 Ole Miss, 31-17), No. 8 UCLA (to Stanford, 31-10), No. 9 Georgia (to Tech), No. 13 Arizona State (to No. 11 Arizona, 42-35) and No. 15 Auburn (to No. 1 Alabama, 55-44).

So, at minimum, Tech will move up two spots, to No. 14. For what it’s worth, I could find two similar results, rankings-wise, to Tech’s win Saturday.

1. Nov. 8, No. 14 Ohio State beat No. 8 Michigan State 49-37 on the road. That same week, Nos. 3, 5, 7 and 10 also lost. Ohio State moved up to No. 8 and Michigan State dropped to No. 12.

2. The next week, No. 15 Georgia beat No. 9 Auburn 34-7. The same week, Nos. 1 and 6 also lost. Georgia moved up to No. 9 and Auburn dropped to No. 14.

In both instances, I think you’d have to say Georgia and Ohio State won more convincingly than Tech did Saturday. You can argue about whether that matters, and what it says about a team when it wins in the fashion the Jackets did, if that is also impressive in its own way. I raise the point because “game control” is another criteria that the committee uses to differentiate teams and games. But, even still, in these examples, the wins weren’t so substantive that the loser dropped that far.

So perhaps, even though Tech didn’t demonstrate extended game control, taking Georgia’s No. 9 spot isn’t far-fetched, or even the No. 8 spot, depending on how the committee looks at No. 10 Michigan State and No. 11 Arizona. I’d say the highest Tech could aspire is No. 7, with Mississippi State dropping past the Jackets.

In this circumstance, the top 7 going into championship weekend looks like this:

1. Alabama

2. Oregon

3. Florida State

4. TCU

5. Ohio State

6. Baylor

7. Georgia Tech

In this scenario, could Tech possibly get into the playoff?

As much as it makes me shake my head to write it, I think it could. It would take a lot of upsets, but it’s not out of the question.

Friday night, No. 11 Arizona (perhaps No. 9 next week) upsets No. 2 Oregon to win the Pac-12. Missouri, now No. 17, topples No. 1 Alabama for the SEC title. The Jackets takes down No. 3 Florida State for the ACC championship. (Hypothetical No. 4 TCU plays Iowa State, but let’s just give the game to the Horned Frogs.) In games played nearly simultaneously with Tech-FSU, No. 14 Wisconsin brings down hypothetical No. 5 Ohio State for the Big Ten title and hypothetical No. 6 Baylor loses to Kansas State.

With the weight that the committee is purportedly giving to conference championships, maybe that’s enough to send Tech into the playoffs. And I’m not positive it would take that many upsets. If just Ohio State and Baylor got out of the way, might it not be enough if Tech proved itself clearly superior to the No. 3 team on a neutral field for the ACC championship that it deserved to be in the four-team field ahead of the Seminoles?

Mindboggling.

4. Where does Harrison Butker’s 53-yard field goal, which tied the game at the end of regulation, rank in the rankings of clutch klcks?

Given the distance and the circumstances, I’d say very, very high. First, it was Butker’s career long. In fact, according to Tech’s records, it was the longest game-winning or game-tying field goal (in the final two minutes) by 15 yards. (Luke Manget beat Georgia in overtime in 1999 with a 38-yarder, as did Scott Sisson against Virginia Tech in 1990. The Virginia kick the same year was 37 yards.) Second, it was just to keep the team alive. I don’t know if kickers think much in these terms, but I’d imagine there’s less pressure (if infinitesimally less) to kick a game-winning field goal with the score tied than there is to kick one in Butker’s situation. Third, Georgia had already blocked one field goal already, so there was that to roll around in Butker’s head. Fourth, Butker was likely well aware of Georgia’s domination of the series and Tech’s history in falling short in moments like these. Fifth, if you need a fifth, it was on the road.

In short, there were plenty of factors to rattle Butker, who nevertheless put it through. It has not been the season he imagined. I spoke with him at the beginning of the  year, and he said his goal was to make every field goal, a goal that went by the wayside after the first game. He has missed more than he should have from inside 40 yards.

But when his team needed him most, he delivered.

“It didn’t feel good (on impact),” Butker told my colleague Michael Cunningham. “But as soon as I looked up, it was going straight. I had to make sure I had the distance.”

Watching from the sideline, B-back Synjyn Days couldn’t tell until others around him started screaming. I happened to speak with athletic director Mike Bobinski, who was on the sideline during the game. I asked him what kind of clearance the kick had. He spread his thumb and index finger apart.

“It was literally like that,” he said. “It was inches. It wasn’t a foot. It was inches.”

5. There was some question about the officiating crew in the game, particularly after the questionable Justin Thomas fumble at the goal line. The answer – it was an SEC crew, headed by Matt Moore. In the past, officials have been assigned by the visiting team’s conference. In 2012, for instance, an ACC crew called the game at Sanford. In 2011, the SEC assigned a crew for the game at Bobby Dodd.

However, an ACC crew headed by Gary Patterson (not the TCU coach) officiated last year at Bobby Dodd. In a tweet Saturday afternoon, ACC senior associate commissioner Michael Strickland said that, in non-conference games, the visiting team’s conference usually assigns officials, but that Georgia and Florida’s administrators have made it a game-contract point to have it the other way around.

More on the call in a later post.



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6. Tech’s run of turnovers is not inexplicable, but it has been absurdly timely. Besides White’s interception to end the game, two forced and recovered fumbles inside the Jackets’ own 5-yard line?

Really?

Against a team that had lost four fumbles all season?

After the Pittsburgh game (four fumble recoveries in the Panthers’ first six plays of the game) and the N.C. State and Clemson games (two defensive touchdowns in both games after Tech had had eight such games going back to 1961), it is incredible.

“It was great,” Paul Johnson said of the two fumbles. “It’s the way we’ve played all year.”

Credit Isaiah Johnson, who gave up his body to force the first fumble, of Chubb, and linebacker Quayshawn Nealy, who knocked the ball loose from running back Sony Michel at the Tech 1-yard line on the second, and likewise Marcordes and Johnson for being around the ball to recover it.

Credit defensive coordinator Ted Roof for harping on ball disruption, as he calls it. The defense is clearly improving. Two months ago, Chubb might have run for 200 yards and not 129. Tech would not have sacked Mason twice. But the turnover binge is something else. It isn’t luck by any stretch. It is the product of talent, effort, preparation and technique. But I don’t think the four don’t always intersect like this. It’s like lightning keeps striking each Saturday.

7. After halftime, perhaps in part because wide receiver DeAndre Smelter was likely not to return – after injuring his knee in the first half, he was in sweat pants in the second – Johnson made a decision.

“He’s a really good player,” Johnson said, “but we decided in the second half we were going to go at ’em with what we do. Right at ’em.”

Tech ran 47 plays after halftime. Of those 47, 45 were runs. Moreover, the two passes were incomplete. And another pass turned into the fumble by Thomas near the end of regulation.

The 45 runs gained 280 yards, a 6.2 yards-per-carry average.

“I wouldn’t say they were worn down, but it was just like they had no answer for what we were doing,” right guard Shaquille Mason said. “So we just ran the same thing we’ve been running.”

Particularly after halftime, the Tech line repeatedly won at the line of scrimmage and Tech’s backs ran hard and low, often driving forward after contact.

“It goes back to Zach (Laskey) and Synjyn (Days),” Mason said. “They ran hard all day. They make my job so much easier.”

Laskey finished with 140 yards on 26 carries and three touchdowns. Days ran for 94 yards on 16 carries. It was their highest combined total as starting and backup B-backs. The two, who have become good friends over their time together at Tech, have been impressive in how they’ve shared the position with each other. It’s another small reason why this team has succeeded.

Said Days, “Me and Zach, we felt like we would be able to take over the game. Just keep getting us the ball. More and more, we started to wear down the defense.”

8. I don’t have a great depth of games to compare this to – I’ve only covered college football on a regular basis since 2008 – but I’ve never before seen a game like that, where so much was on the line between rivals, with so many superior plays, strange twists and momentum swings.

Tech trailed four different occasions before tying the game. The Jackets had the two forced fumbles inside their 3-yard line. There were three blocked kicks. There was the crazy pooched kickoff that Tech recovered. There was Thomas’ debatable fumble on the goal line that turned into the longest fumble return in Georgia history, which was practically a footnote by game’s end. Tech finished the game with three of its most important players – Smelter, linebacker P.J. Davis and A-back Tony Zenon – on the sideline. There was a successful fake field goal. The lead change hands or the score was tied three times inside the final five minutes.

And, somehow, Tech won it.

During his career, I leaned heavily on Roddy Jones to deftly communicate what was going on with the team. Jones is now in his first year as Tech’s analyst and he is, to no one’s surprise, very good at it. Even still, even he was at a loss during the broadcast Saturday.

“It was definitely a roller coaster, for sure,” he said afterwards. “It seemed like everything that could happen, did happen. It’s really how it was. A lot of times, you try and describe what’s going on, but you can’t even put it into words, the emotions that you’re feeling. I’m just happy for the program. It’s been too long, for sure. Coach Johnson has done a great job with this team, but this is kind of the hump that you’re not able to get over on a consistent basis. So to have a win, and in a game where it feels like for Tech fans who’ve lost games like this in the past – this team is different. So it’s definitely good to see.”

9. The concept of the “Big Four” as Clemson, Georgia, Miami and Virginia Tech is, as Johnson has contended, somewhat arbitrary. North Carolina, for instance, entered this year with 24 ACC during Johnson’s tenure to 27 for Miami. Take away the games against Tech, and UNC would have 23 wins and Miami would have 22. Had North Carolina been 5-1 against Johnson and Miami 1-5, as was the case prior to this season, I wonder if the composition of the “Big Four” might have been different. Maybe not. Clemson, Georgia and Virginia Tech as a “Big Three” are less assailable, as I think a reasonable person would deem them to be Tech’s biggest rivals.

At any rate, Tech has finished the regular season 4-0 against teams that it was 1-15 against in the previous four seasons, or 7-18 overall in Johnson’s tenure.

And, at the same time, somehow lost to Duke and North Carolina, two results that dovetail quite nicely in a season that largely resists explanation.

At any rate, Tech has only played all four since 2004. The best the Jackets had ever done prior to this year was 3-1, once, in 2008.

Not really a takeaway, but just interesting to note. Synjyn Days, July 30 (report day for preseason camp), on being a senior: “It’s motivated me a lot, because this is our legacy. We don’t want to go out there and be the team that didn’t beat Georgia. We don’t want to be the team that goes out there and misses a bowl game. We want to be known as the team that started the winning tradition again and made it to the ACC championship.”
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