A year ago Sunday, Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson happily bragged on his team, which had just stunned Georgia in Athens by erasing a 13-point fourth-quarter lead to win 28-27.
“We just keep playing,” Johnson said then. “We keep playing. The team doesn’t get a whole lot of respect, nor does the program, and so you just keep playing. I think that they’ve done a really good job of doing that. We don’t listen to anybody. We just play.”
It was a marked contrast to his assessment of the 2017 team, composed of many of the same players from a year ago, but one that lost 38-7 to No. 7 Georgia Saturday at Bobby Dodd Stadium.
“This (team), for some reason, at times it seemed like we were just out there,” he said.
The one constant of Johnson’s teams in 10 years at Tech has been their effort. Often made up of players overlooked by the SEC and the elite of the ACC, the Yellow Jackets have often made use of that chip on their shoulder. It’s one reason why games like Saturday’s, and also the 43-20 defeat last week at Duke, are the anomaly.
In the past 10 seasons, of Tech’s 54 defeats, 28 have been by eight points or fewer, according to sports-reference.com. By measure of margin of defeat, the Duke and UGA losses rank in the bottom eight.
But, something has been off this season, and Johnson’s comments after the loss to the Bulldogs Saturday, particularly when compared against his praise for his 2016 team, make it clear. As he said this past Tuesday, it has been a “screwy season.”
After last year’s win over Georgia, Johnson made a point to honor his coaching staff.
“I want to give my staff a shout-out, too, because if you’re coaching, you’re getting better as the year goes along,” he said. “This football team is a way better football team now than it was at the first of the year.”
Particularly given that the end of this season’s results included the loss to an average Virginia team and then the decisive defeats to Duke and Georgia (as well as the upset of then-No. 17 Virginia Tech), the same observation cannot be made of this team. And yet, Johnson’s staff is the same except the quarterbacks/B-backs coach, where Craig Candeto replaced Bryan Cook after the latter took the offensive coordinator job at Georgia Southern.
The defense that made such a dramatic improvement in the final four games of last season for defensive coordinator Ted Roof slumped home this season. Johnson is now in the position of having to decide whether to retain him.
“They certainly outplayed us, outcoached us,” Johnson said Saturday of the Bulldogs. “Whatever you want to say. It was frustrating. It wasn’t much fun out there.”
A year ago, the Bulldogs ran for 263 yards on 42 carries, quite similar to Saturday’s totals – 247 yards on 43 carries. However, the Jackets forced the Bulldogs to try three field goals in last season’s game – one of which they missed – and cornerback Lance Austin came up with a critical interception of quarterback Jacob Eason.
“We didn’t play perfect all day, but we made plays,” Johnson said last year. “It was kind of a microcosm of our season.”
Saturday, Georgia drove for five touchdowns and attempted only one field goal, and that was at the end of the first half after racing 50 yards in four plays in under a minute. The Jackets did not force a turnover. At halftime, down 17-7, Johnson said he stressed the importance of gaining momentum. The defense complied, producing its only three-and-out of the game.
But the offense answered with its own three-and-out, and Georgia drove for a touchdown, after which the Jackets came back with a second three-and-out, and Georgia scored another touchdown, this one to go up 31-7 with 1:23 left in the quarter. Saturday, Johnson used the word “microcosm” again, only this time he was comparing Saturday’s third quarter to the disastrous third period against Duke the previous Saturday.
And where Johnson boiled down last year’s team’s essence to its ability to make plays when necessary, he described the opposite Saturday.
“There were times that were in position to make plays and didn’t make ’em,” he said.
A year ago, Johnson remarked upon the team’s grit, fight and belief in itself. After falling out of the ACC Coastal race, that team re-set its objective to win nine games, an accomplishment it met with a bowl win. This year, Johnson made the aforementioned comment about the team sometimes being “just out there,” perhaps never more so than last week, when the Jackets were wiped out by a Duke team that had lost six games in a row.
The how and why the 2016 and 2017 teams – again, made up of dozens of the same players and nearly the same coaching staff – could travel such divergent paths is not easily answered. While many players remain, plenty of others graduate or enroll. The schedule and quality of opponents change. The intangibles of chemistry and leadership play a role. Sometimes, it just happens.
Whatever the reasons, a year after the Jackets were able to salvage their season with timely plays leading to big wins, this year’s team was unable to do the same.
What needs fixing and what needs replacing will be decisions Johnson will make in coming days and weeks. On Saturday, he seemed bent on finding answers.
“The message to the team was, just disappointed, and we’ve got to do better,” he said. “I’ve got to help them more, and we’ve got to play better. Bottom line.”