On a chilly afternoon at Bobby Dodd Stadium, Georgia Tech received just about all it could have asked for when it arranged its payday game with Alabama A&M.
The Yellow Jackets claimed an easy victory, escaped without injuries to their starters and played a lot of backups.
“It’s good for everybody when everybody gets to play,” coach Paul Johnson said. “That’s why they’re out there.”
Alabama A&M, an FCS school in the SWAC, was little match for Tech. The Jackets’ offense scored touchdowns seven of the first eight times it touched the ball and kicked a field goal on the other possession.The Tech defense either forced a three-and-out or a turnover on the Bulldogs’ first seven possessions, and each of the three turnovers occurred within the first three plays of those possessions.
An injury-racked Alabama A&M team (4-8) that before the game ranked 239th among 252 Division I teams by the Sagarin ratings model looked the part, and it sped its undoing with a fumble returned for a touchdown and another inside its 15-yard line.
Johnson said he wanted to give backup quarterback Justin Thomas more playing time than he did — he was in for four first-half possessions, leading the Jackets to three touchdowns and a field goal — but gave the entire second half to No. 3 quarterback Tim Byerly.
The quality of the repetitions Thomas was getting in the game, Johnson said, wasn’t any better than what he could get in practice.
Tech improved to 7-4, and barring an unlikely appearance in the ACC Championship game, guaranteed itself a winning season. With Duke and Miami winning Saturday, the Jackets will need the Blue Devils and Hurricanes to lose next weekend (to North Carolina and Pittsburgh, respectively) and also will need Virginia Tech to lose to Virginia in order to represent the ACC Coastal Division in the conference title game Dec. 7 in Charlotte, N.C.
Tech can turn its focus on Georgia, which has defeated the Jackets 11 of the past 12 seasons. The teams will play at 3:30 p.m. Saturday at Bobby Dodd Stadium.
While B-back David Sims ran for a career-high 111 yards on only eight carries, and A-back Synjyn Days ran for a pair of touchdowns on his only two carries of the game, Saturday belonged to the backups. Tech’s first half, in which it scored 52 points to set a school record for the modern era (since 1950) for points in a half, ensured that.
Johnson said that every player that wasn’t injured or redshirting played in the game.
“It’s awesome,” offensive lineman Will Jackson. “Those guys just work as hard as we do.”
Among the backups who received playing time was senior defensive lineman Ben Keith, who came to Tech as a walk-on in 2009. Defensive coordinator Ted Roof made Keith wait longer than most, as he gave the third-string defensive line playing time deep into the fourth quarter.
Keith was injured early in the season, missing the season-opening Elon blowout, but played in the 56-0 win over Syracuse, just the second game of his career. As the second half wound down, he stood on the sideline, helmet on, waiting. He was hopeful.
“Anytime we get up by 50 points, I kind of get ready to go in,” he said.
With 7:59 to play, Keith took the field. Perhaps 5,000 fans remained. He said he wasn’t nervous, just full of anticipation. On the sidelines, teammates offered their support.
“Oh, yeah, absolutely,” said Jackson, a classmate of Keith’s. “When Ben Keith goes in, everybody gets wild for him.”
Keith has had an injury-filled career and has played as grueling a role as perhaps any football player in college football — a scout-team defensive lineman practicing against an offense that cut blocks as much, if not more, than any team in the country. It’s conceivable that over the past five seasons, no one has been taken out at the knees more times than Keith.
Said Keith, named Tech’s defensive scout-team MVP in 2011, “I like to think I’ve beaten them a little more than they’ve beat me up.”
He considered giving up his spot on the team to concentrate on school, but he said he remembers that “there’s people out there that would kill to be in this same position, and it’d be foolish and selfish to give that up.”
There was no Rudy moment Saturday for Keith. He was double-teamed often, and didn’t get much of a chance to get close to the quarterback, even on a deft spin move. When Alabama A&M scored its only touchdown, he held his hands against his helmet, aghast. He said he played better against Syracuse.
In the dying light Saturday, it didn’t matter.
“I came here dreaming of being a college football player,” he said. “I’m grateful for the opportunity I’m given. I love it.”