Passing The First Test
Sept. 24, 2011
By Matt Winkeljohn
Georgia Tech was presented with a choice Saturday that the Yellow Jackets hadn't seen yet this fall: bow up, or bow out. Actually, the option came several times.
There were tight moments in Bobby Dodd Stadium before the home team stood up to push through a skittish 35-28 win over North Carolina. That moved the good guys to 4-0 for the first time since 1990.
From this perspective, the best news was that - even if you're into omens and you know that turned out to be a golden autumn - while the Jackets inched closer to a season like that one, they also put miles between themselves and 2010.
They could've gone either way. Last year, Tech often went the wrong direction.
The Jackets harkened back to the dark season a few times Saturday, like when Stephen Hill was so wide open he could've done jumping jacks before catching a 55-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter only to . . . drop it.
Gone was a chance to go up 35-21. Six plays later, UNC tied the game at 28 on a 55-yard run by a slithery running back named Giovani Bernard.
Tech fans will remember a few wins wiggling off the hook last season. Might a recurrence be afoot? Judging from the collective gasps and groans on The Flats, the thought was palpable.
After the Jackets finished grounding, pounding and sacking their way to victory, head coach Paul Johnson blew off a question about whether this team is tougher than last year's squad.
The question was valid if you consider that it it was asked about concepts that go beyond physical toughness.
What we're getting at here, and it's hard to distill to mere words, is whether this team has more intestinal fortitude, gumption, cohesion, grit, moxie, savvy, etc.
Anyway, Paul passed.
"I think these kids are tough. They were tough last year," he said. "These guys couldn't get through my butt if they weren't tough."
There was no interpreter available, and I guess we got the point: Johnson likes his guys.
That doesn't mean he was completely tickled. Although the coach was suitably amped in his post-game conference, he pointed out deficiencies on the day.
But the deficiencies didn't lead to defeat against what looks like a pretty good North Carolina team (3-1), and so Johnson said, "I was pleased with the score being 35-28."
For most of the afternoon, the Jackets were moving the ball at a typical - for them - pace, yet there came points where it could be said that North Carolina had could be content with how the afternoon was unfolding.
The Tar Heels were making plays, and the Jackets often enough un-did themselves that there was real drama in the air.
Tech led just 17-7 at halftime. Johnson said it felt like the lead should've been greater, and he was right.
Never mind that Tech had out-gained the Heels 272 yards to 93 with 63 of them coming on UNC's first drive of the game, a touchdown push. Those two turnovers and the missed kick left it very much a game.
Even after Tech started the second half with a field goal drive for a 20-7 lead, the Heels didn't cave. UNC quarterback Bryn Renner completed eight of his first nine passes in the half, and the Heels put together touchdown drives of 74, 64 and 80 yards on three of their first four possessions after half time.
The only interruption was a leaping interception by cornerback Rod Sweeting. That hardly slowed the visitors. Hill soon dropped that not-so-fateful pass, the Jackets punted a few snaps later, and North Carolina went 80 yards and tied the score as Bernard pitched in a big chunk of his 17-carry, 155-yard day.
It was sweating time. The defense that had been so stiff over much of the first half wasn't slowing anything, and the offense was hit or miss, even though the Jackets were again on their way to huge yardage numbers (496 yards of total offense).
UNC interim coach Everett Withers said earlier in the week that he didn't care if the Jackets went up and down the field with the ball, so long as they weren't scoring touchdowns. To that point, Tech had tried two field goals, made just one, turned the ball over once in the red zone, and lost that pick as well.
"As I've said all week, this is not about yards," Withers said. "This game is about making them kick [for] three. We just didn't make them kick three enough."
Rather than let a few hiccups morph into nausea, as happened too many times last season, the Jackets held their collective breath, knuckled down, and quelled the disturbance.
Washington, who continues to make impressive decisions with the ball in his hands and nice throws as well, kept up the middle for 4. Then, he let go a perfectly timed pitch that Roddy Jones took 48 yards down the left sideline.
Finally, two more Washington runs, for 4 and 5 yards, put the Jackets on top 35-28 with the PAT. The QB, who has for the time being put to rest the many hyperbolic conversations about the future of freshman signal caller Vad Lee, made a divine decision to follow a Jay Finch-Will Jackson double-team of the UNC nose tackle, and then duck behind the lead block of B-back David Sims for the score.
After the Jackets ran the clock down to 1:35, the Tar Heels took possession at their 16-yard line with no timeouts.
The bad guys in powder blue mustered one more first down, but the clock was not their friend, and neither were Tech defensive coordinator Al Groh's blitzes.
Nearly to midfield, the Heels were put away when Jeremiah Attachou tracked Renner down again - the sophomore's third sack of the day.
On campus because Groh is on campus, the sophomore outside linebacker blitzed and registered a sack to end the game (complete with a 10-second runoff as UNC committed a penalty in trying to spike the ball with nine seconds left).
What a fine day the book of Jeremiah had: a team-leading nine combined tackles and assists, three sacks, a deflected pass that resulted in an interception and a fumble forced.
Attachou was recruited to Virginia when Groh was head coach there, and soon after Groh was fired there and hired by Johnson, the young man from Washington D.C.'s Archbishop Carroll High switched his allegiance southward.
That paid handsome dividends Saturday, as did the approach of these Jackets.
"As a defense, we got tired of hearing the talk that we can't get to the quarterback, so it was a you and the team mentality," Attachou said after Tech had seven sacks. "Everybody does what you need to do, and as a team we'll be together collectively."
Hill - who aside from that drop played splendidly while catching a career-high six passes for 151 yards and a score -- and Attachou both said after the game they were glad in a way that the Jackets were finally tested Saturday.
Left unsaid, but known, is the fact it's easy to say that when you win.
Last year, the Jackets failed some tests like this one. Not Saturday.
As Johnson said succinctly, style points don't matter so much unless the real points don't go your way: "I just want to score more than they do."
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