Five years ago this week, several high school football recruits sat at home and watched the implausible unfold on their television screens.
Georgia Tech went into Sanford Stadium and upset Georgia. Players from the relative afterthought program ripped out branches from the hallowed hedges and paraded them around the field, like fishermen holding up dead trout. Paul Johnson, the new Tech coach, smiled slightly, but when asked if he also grabbed a souvenir from the hedges said, “Naw. I figure I’ll be back.” And North Avenue exploded.
As did recruits. Many either reaffirmed their commitment to Tech or made their decision because of that game, partly in the belief that they had witnessed the beginning of a turnaround in this rivalry.
“Coach’s first year, and he comes in and does something that had been driving Tech coaches crazy. The coolest game I saw as a recruit,” running back David Sims said Saturday.
“I had already committed, but that sealed the deal for me. It erased any doubts I might’ve had,” tackle Will Jackson said.
“I remember everything about that game. Roddy (Jones) rushed for like 200 yards — in Athens. I thought, ‘That’s crazy,’” running back Robert Godhigh said.
Tech won a game Saturday. Nobody really wanted to talk about that much.
It was an obviously impressive performance against an obviously out-of-place program. The Yellow Jackets scored on their first eight possessions (seven touchdowns and a field goal) and thumped FCS-flotsam Alabama A&M 66-7 at half-empty Bobby Dodd Stadium. Consider it no more than a pregame stretch before next week’s meeting with Georgia.
“I don’t know how much you can tell about a game like that,” Johnson acknowledged.
Tech is 7-4. Not awful, but not great. The team had a disappointing early ACC loss to Virginia Tech and was blown out by Miami and Clemson. There’s really only one game that could erase some of the misery they’ve gone through, and that happens next week at Bobby Dodd Stadium.
“It would mean a lot to beat your big rival, especially being a senior,” Godhigh said. “Last year was a big loss. So definitely, (we) got a little payback coming next week.”
The 2008 game, a 45-42 Tech win that saw the Jackets rally from a 16-point halftime deficit, did not spark a turnaround in the series. Georgia has won the four meetings since, and by increasing margins: 30-24 (6), 42-34 (8), 31-17 (14), 42-10 (32).
Tech’s senior class needs a win to avoid being swept during their tenure. Johnson needs a win for something equally important: He needs to restore confidence in the program, whether from players, fans or media. The perception of Tech and Johnson is not as sun-shiny as it was in 2008 and 2009, but an upset of Georgia could change that.
“It’s a big game, and it’s a game we haven’t played particularly well in the last couple of years,” Johnson said following Saturday’s game.
Johnson was determined to steer conversation away from the Georgia game last week. He wanted the focus of his players to be on themselves and the mistakes made in a lopsided loss to Clemson.
Yet, Sims, a fifth-year senior like Godhigh and Jackson, revealed: “Coach Johnson said last week, ‘No senior class should ever go out without beating Georgia.’ It’d be nice for us to go out and actually upset them, beat them, go out with a good feeling.”
Sims said he spoke to former Tech quarterback Joe Hamilton after Saturday’s game and asked him: “How does it feel to beat Georgia?”
“He said, ‘You were part of the 2009 (ACC) championship team.’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘It felt better than that.’ I want that type of feeling,” Sims said.
He’s not alone at Tech. Even a game like Saturday’s, when the Jackets led 52-0 at halftime, before Johnson emptied the bench, wasn’t going to have a long shelf life. Thoughts quickly turned to Georgia.
Jackson understands Tech will be a big underdog, but said, “We don’t like to pay attention to what people are saying. Two years ago against Clemson, there probably weren’t a whole lot of people who thought we would win that game. In 2008, when we beat Georgia, I’m sure nobody was picking us.”
Last year’s meeting, he said, “was about as embarrassing a loss as I’ve ever had as a football player, especially on that stage and losing to a rival. You don’t need an extra motivation.”
Five years later, we know 2008 didn’t signal a turnaround. The question is whether 2013 can stop the slide.