This should have been one of Paul Johnson’s finest hours. Georgia Tech heaped 655 yards of total offense on the nation’s No. 25 team. TaQuon Marshall, a quarterback making his first collegiate start, ran for 249 yards (a record for a Tech quarterback) on 44 carries (a Tech record for anybody) and scored five rushing touchdowns (ditto). The Yellow Jackets did not trail in regulation, twice leading by two touchdowns. They nearly doubled an opponent from the high-falutin’ SEC in yards and did double it time of possession.
But here this what-the-heck game was, in double overtime with Tennessee having finally nosed ahead. Then Tech scored yet again with what can only be called disdain, whereupon the famously daring Paul Johnson took what we should be calling a famous dare: He went for two when he didn’t have to go for two. He did it because he’s Paul Johnson, sure, but also because it made absolute sense.
"I just thought we had a better chance of getting a 2-point conversion there than we did of stopping them," Johnson said. "They'd scored twice on three plays in two overtimes. When they got rolling the second half, there wasn't much stopping them."
Given eight months to prepare for Johnson’s stylized offense, the favored Volunteers had forced one Tech punt since 7 ½ minutes remained in the first quarter. The game was still a game only because the Jackets missed two field-goal attempts, one being blocked at the end of regulation, and lost two fumbles, one by J.J. Green that led to Tennessee’s tying touchdown with 1:29 left in the fourth quarter.
"The last fumble killed us," Johnson said. "We've got the game under control down there."
The Vols essentially had stopped the Jackets once since roughly 8:15 p.m., and now it was nearing midnight. Going for the deuce was the right decision, and maybe Tech ran the right play. Off counter action, forever a PJ staple, Marshall took the snap and spun right. Alas, the right guard and right tackle didn’t quite do what they were supposed to do, meaning block people. Marshall was met at the line and driven sideways.
Falling, he flipped the ball to B-back KirVonte Benson, who appeared to snatch the rushed toss -- was it a pitch or a pass? -- an inch above the turf. The immediate ruling was an incomplete pass. Even if it had been reviewed and deemed a catch, Benson was halted short of the goal line.
Think about that. Tennessee’s defense had barely made a play all night, and at win-or-lose time it made two.
Johnson: “We pitched the ball late. If we do it right, even if we don’t block the guys, we can still pitch it and the guy has a race to the end zone.”
Then: “We screwed that up. That should have been a walk-in. ... We screwed that up, so we don't deserve to win.”
Then: “I don’t think I’ve ever been part of a game where you run 96 plays and gain 655 yards and lose.”
This wasn’t just any loss. This came on Labor Day night in Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the only football being played on the final night of the holiday weekend. This was Johnson’s third swing in the span of three games at a team from the SEC East – he’d won the first two, beating Georgia in Athens in November and then Kentucky in the TaxSlayer Bowl – and he should be 3-for-3. But lousy kicking and a collapsing defense undid everything, and it's not the first time in Johnson’s time here we could say as much. Heck, it’s not the 10th.
“It’s a game we should have won,” Johnson said, telling no lies.
Someone asked if his defense had gotten fatigued. “From what?” he said, incredulity in his tone. He then noted, correctly, that his offense hogged the ball for 41 minutes and 27 seconds to Tennessee’s 18:33. If your defense is frazzled by that, you need to change your conditioning regimen. You might also need a new defense.
Johnson: "If they wore down in this game, they better get their butts home."
Oh, and the missed field-goal attempts. What can be done about that? “Try a different kicker, I guess,” said Johnson, who deployed the walk-on Shawn Davis on Monday. "The last one he kicked head-high.'
All the way until the failed final play, this was a Johnson classic. He took a new quarterback (Marshall, who wasn’t revealed as the starter until the game commenced) and a new B-back (Benson, in for the jettisoned Dedrick Mills) and bled 655 astonishing yards from them. Before Monday night, it was possible to believe that this coach would never find a better administrator of his option than Justin Thomas. Midway through the third quarter, you half-wondered why Marshall hadn’t been starting ahead of the Thomas the past two seasons.
At halftime, this seemed the most lopsided 14-7 game ever. When it became 21-7 and then 28-14, you figured it was over. When Green burst inside the Tennessee 10 inside the final five minutes, you figured a field goal would clinch it. When Marshall carried inside the Vols’ 20 inside the final 10 seconds, you figured this 37-yard kick would break the improbable tie and leave Johnson 3-for-3 against the SEC East.
And then, even when the Jackets trailed by a point and aligned itself to go for two, you figured: They’ll make it; they’ll win it; they deserve it. But they didn’t make it, didn’t win. They deserved it, but football – like life itself – isn’t fair. The better team lost. We should be placing this one on the highest shelf of Johnson’s many notable victories, but Tennessee somehow wound up with 42 points to Tech’s 41. Somehow the Jackets are 0-1.
One non-conference loss on Labor Day shouldn’t ruin a season, but this is a game Paul Johnson will be replaying in his sleep the rest of his born days. And every time he’ll wake up screaming.