I just walked in the door of WAD Palace after attending one of the truly strangest college football games I’ve ever witnessed. I, of course, am referring to UGA’s 30-24 triumph at Grant Field tonight. There is a lot I could say about what went down on the Flats tonight, but every stream of thought brings me back to two things. Actually, two men. Paul Johnson and Mark Richt. And no, I’m not here to talk about the mistakes they made or to tell you why one is better than the other (for the record, they both made a few mistakes (i.e. not sure why Richt didn’t go for the jugular with 3 minutes left instead of seemingly settling for a 50+ yard field goal to ice the game, and I’m not sure why Paul Johnson called three consecutive bombs from around mid-field with less than two minutes left.)). Instead, I’m here to tell you why fans of the two major college football programs in this state should be very happy to have these two men running their respective programs.
As for Richt, the fact that he brought his highly criticized 6-5 squad into Atlanta against the #7 ranked Jackets and walked out with a victory is, on its face, impressive. The real beauty of the win, however, is how he went about doing it. I don’t know exactly what Mark Richt said to his team this week, but I imagine it was something like, “fellas, we are bigger and stronger than these guys up front, and we aren’t going to win any style points, but we are going to run it down their throats all night.” And that, of course, is exactly what they did. I know this sounds pretty simple, and you are probably asking why I think this was so impressive. Well, I’m glad you asked.
Anybody that lives in this city and reads the paper, listens to sports talk radio, or has a friend or co-worker that is a UGA fan knows that Mark Richt has been much maligned for last week’s loss to Kentucky and for a disappointing 6-5 season. Setting aside the fact that this criticism has been overblown , if not irrational, it’s been there, and it’s been something Richt has had to deal with. Given that, it would have been easy for Richt to over-think things and try to come out with a “brilliant” game plan to re-prove his genius to his constituency. In other words, it would have been easy for Richt to fall in the style over substance trap. But, unfortunately for the Jackets, Richt didn’t do that. Instead, he grasped the importance of this moment, and he went in his bunker and took his team back to basics. And, you know what? In doing so, he came out with a game plan that was brilliant in its simplicity. So, at the end of the day, he ignored his detractors, set aside his own ego, and put his program above himself. In other words, he did exactly what a great coach is supposed to do. It truly kills me to say this, but great job by you, Mark. (TM: Mike “Mad Dog” Russo).
As for Johnson, this game, while a loss, was bizarrely a glaring example of why the Tech program is in the right hands. Imagine if you will that a Chan Gailey coached Yellow Jacket team was down 17-3 to UGA at the half and was getting blown off the ball on every Bulldog snap. Does that game end 41-3? 48-10? 55-10? It, of course, is impossible to say, but I can guaranty you this: Tech would have never had the ball with a chance to win the game in the final two minutes, and I would have been at home long before the final second ticked off the clock. Under Johnson, the Jackets managed to incredibly play themselves into an opportunity to win the game while not forcing a single UGA punt. If you watched this game, you know that it was absolutely incredible that Tech had a chance to win it. I honestly still can't believe it unfolded the way it did. Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe in moral victories, and, as a Tech fan, this loss hurts terribly. But, as I stood in the Southwest corner of Bobby Dodd Stadium watching the final four Tech plays from scrimmage, I was completely dumbfounded that we were somehow in position to win the game. Upon reflection, however, I really shouldn’t have been that stunned because this game was a microcosm of our entire season. How so? Well, let me explain.
I have been attending Tech games since I was a child. Over twenty years now. And, in that time, I’ve only missed a few games, and I’ve seen a good number of away games. In other words, I may have attended 100 Georgia Tech football games through the years (maybe less, but 100 looks more impressive in writing than 90), and I have never felt more helpless with our defense on the field as I have this year. Never. Not even when Charlie Ward was ripping our hearts out in ’92, when Peter Warrick was toying with us in ’98, or when Woody Dantzler was breaking records against us in 2001. NEVER!!! I don’t know whether this year’s defense suffered from a lack of talent (hard to believe with Derek Morgan and Morgan Burnett on the field), poor coaching (hard to say since I know about as much about good diet habits as I do defensive schemes), or some combination of the two (probably the most likely scenario), but I do know that I am literally terrified every time our defense steps on the field. The defense is the Jackets’ fatal flaw. And, even with this fatal flaw, Coach Johnson managed to lead this team to 10 wins, a division championship, and a potential conference title and Orange Bowl appearance.
Do me a favor. Re-read the previous paragraph and then try to explain to me how any of this is possible. Unbelievable. The problem with a fatal flaw, however, is that you can hide it and you can fight it, but ultimately, by definition, it is going to kill you. Well, twice this year, it killed the Jackets. It’s no coincidence, however, that these two times were against two of the four opponents we confronted (Miami and UGA) that were physically superior in the trenches and had the conviction to consistently exploit that superiority. The other two times we confronted such an opponent (Clemson and Va. Tech), Coach Johnson found a way to fight off that fatal flaw and steal a victory. And, next week, Coach Johnson has to find a way to fight if off one more time against Clemson. Will he be able to do this? Right now, there is no way to know, but he’s batting .500 so far, so it’s certainly possible.
To bring things full circle, setting aside my disappointment about tonight’s outcome, my ultimate takeaway from tonight is that I had the pleasure of watching the second matchup between two great coaches that are going to engage in many more riveting battles in the years to come. UGA is going to win some, and Tech is going to win some. I think the years of extended winning streaks on either side are over. The reason? Both these coaches are too good to let that happen.
Finally, for the record, I am keenly aware that it is completely out of character for me to find the positive in a situation like tonight’s loss. Trust me, I’m just as surprised as anybody. But, as I’ve said before, the greatest thing about sports is when it delivers the completely unexpected.