Georgia Tech trailed Georgia by 10 points five minutes into the third quarter. Nothing suggested that the Yellow Jackets were about to win this game, but the score was close enough that … well, stranger things and all that.
Mecole Hardman outfought Lance Austin for the catch that gave Georgia first-and-goal at the 4. Jake Fromm handed to Sony Michel, who was forced to retreat by a stunting Tech lineman who’d defeated his blocker. That left Michel alone on the right flank, with two defenders – linebacker Victor Alexander and Austin – converging. It should have been a 5-yard loss. It became a Georgia touchdown.
Michel made both Jackets miss completely. In that moment, the game was gone. Georgia would win 38-7, which was no shock to anyone. As much as we tend to characterize every Tech game as Paul Johnson’s offense against the world, this wasn’t. This was Johnson’s players and Georgia’s.
Georgia’s players were better. This is not news.
This was, kind of. Georgia’s players played harder.
That Johnson’s Jackets had beaten Georgia twice in three seasons proves the talent gap can sometimes be overcome with oomph. We tend to forget how narrow those victories were: The Jackets needed a 53-yard field goal at 0:00 to force overtime in 2014; they outscored Georgia 14-nil over the final 6-1/2 minutes to prevail last year. In Johnson’s first victory at Sanford Stadium, his 2008 team trailed by 16 points at the half.
An awful lot has to go right for Tech to win this game. Not much did Saturday. Ergo, 38-7.
Thus did a season that began with an inexplicable loss to an SEC East team in Atlanta end, also in in Atlanta, with a thudding defeat against another SEC East representative. Difference was, everyone saw this loss coming. After beating Wake Forest on Oct. 21, Tech’s season unraveled so completely that even an upset of Virginia Tech couldn’t stop the rot. The Jackets lost four of their final five games. As we speak, they aren’t bowl-eligible. They’re definitely not bowl-worthy.
“When you finish, you have to take a long hard look at everything,” Johnson said. “Especially when you had a disappointing season like this. This was a disappointing season for me. I don't want to play the woulda/coulda/shoulda thing, but we had a chance to do some things.”
Through six games, the Jackets were four points from being undefeated. Then they were pushed around at Clemson and upset by Virginia. Then it got worse. Over the final three halves of the regular season, Tech was outscored 61-10. Its defense forced one punt in Charlottesville; it induced two against Georgia.
Someone mentioned the 2015 season, which saw the Jackets plummet from the heights of an Orange Bowl victory to 3-9. Said Johnson: “This season's not like 2015. We had so many people hurt. Those kids fought their tail off. This one, for some reason, at times it seemed like we were just out there.”
Maybe things would have been different had Tech not blown a 14-point lead against Tennessee on Labor Day or if Miami’s deflected fourth-down pass had fallen incomplete. Maybe it was circumstance that sucked the life from this team. Something did. The Jackets could have busted a gut and not beaten Georgia, but they didn’t seem to bust much of anything Saturday. They appeared to know they were beaten long before they were.
Said quarterback TaQuon Marshall: “I hate the way we went out.”
The season began with Johnson’s offense mustering 655 yards and 41 points against Tennessee. It ended with the same bunch managing 226 and seven against Georgia. If the offense doesn’t hold up its end, Tech has no chance. (That’s true in every game of every season.) Asked about his confidence in defensive coordinator Ted Roof, Johnson said: “We didn’t exactly set the woods on fire (on offense) in the second half, and I’m pretty confident in myself.”
Johnson might be the most transparent coach in the world. When he’s not pleased -- and he’s rarely pleased -- you know it. The first words of his postgame briefing: “Clearly disappointed in the way we performed. We got beat every way you could get beat.”
That was the truth, and maybe not the whole truth. This was disappointment tinged with disgust. His opponent had the better players, but it had also given the better effort. You can excuse the former; there’s no excusing the latter.
Johnson was asked about the uncertainty regarding a bowl. (At 5-6, Tech could file a waiver to be considered for any open slots.) Said Johnson: “I don’t think there’s any uncertainty over a bowl.”
Those weren’t the words of a man eager to play again. Those were the words of a coach who wants to see no more of this team.