In the aftermath of a double-overtime loss pulled from the gaping maw of victory, a strange reaction overtook Georgia Tech on Monday night/Tuesday morning.
It showed mostly on the faces of those Yellow Jackets who practice the art of offense as per the Paul Johnson school.
Not dejection, even with the 42-41 overtime loss so fresh it still oozed blood.
Not anger after having run wild on the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium carpet, producing 655 yards of offense, and still having nothing but a season’s first loss to show for it.
Not crushed by the thought that Tech’s obvious scheme to infiltrate, then rule, the SEC East like some super virus had run into a real complication. Johnson’s three-game winning streak against the East was finished, if ever so merely.
Not even irritated by one last chorus of “Rocky Top” ringing in their ears, adding to the insult of this loss. But to the victor goes the soundtrack of the night.
No, it was more hopeful than any of that. Bordering on optimism, almost.
I’ve seen Johnson after a loss that churned his guts. This wasn’t exactly that Paul Johnson. Certainly, he was disturbed by his defense – and had arrived at the point of trying to take it completely out of the equation – rightfully I’d say – by going for two in the second overtime. But he’s always disturbed by his defense.
His offense had performed marvelously here on the stage of the second biggest college game ever played at The Benz (OK, the second college game, period). And, if not for the second of two fumbles that denied Tech its due, this could have been one of the coach’s greatest nights. The worst flashback Johnson will suffer won’t even be his bold two-point conversion being snuffed. It will have to be the memory of J.J. Green rushing downfield late in the fourth, the whole of a great victory spreading out before him, only to have the ball poked free by a trailing Rashaan Gaulden.
Even with all that, with the entire conference schedule yet to unfold, Johnson pointed out, “This doesn't do anything to your goals other than it's a game that we should have won, and we didn't.”
Johnson had picked out his quarterback weeks ago yet kept to himself. But, then, every coach now puts out a depth chart that seems to be authored by P.D. James, a deep and riveting mystery. His choice, this TaQuon Marshall, lit up The Benz like a one-man halo board. The only time Tennessee caught up to him was on the night’s final play.
The realization that they had just thrown out a quarterback who on his first start set a positional record for rushing yards (249) and an overall record for rushing touchdowns (five) seemed to salve a lot of pain.
The players chosen to face the media did not trudge to the podium as if the gallows awaited, such a common sight on the losing side.
Guard Parker Braun was smiling openly as he gave his testimony to the media, like someone who saw beyond the immediate and rather enjoyed the view.
“We did exactly what we wanted to do offensively,” he said. “We just had a few missteps and a few lost possessions and things like that that lost the game for us.
“It’s frustrating, but you got to take the positives. The one positive was our offense ran really well tonight, and hopefully we can turn that into some success moving on.”
A debut such as Marshall’s can’t be hidden behind a veil of disappointment over one game. He was quicksilver this night. Although if he keeps carrying the ball 44 times a game, he’s going to be 5-foot-2 by October.
“I think I’ll be able to bounce back pretty quick. Hydrate good, eat right, go to treatment. I think I’ll be fine by Saturday,” Marshall said, proving himself a willing worker and an amateur athletic trainer.
No, the quarterback was not torn to pieces by one grating loss.
“I really wish the results would have been different. You can’t change that. I got to put it behind me and come back next week – this week – ready to work. I’m going to bring the guys on board with me, lead them. We’re going to be ready to play Saturday.”
Who was going to argue with him after the night he had?