There was a completeness to the Yellow Jackets performance Saturday that made becoming bowl eligible after a 1-3 start to this season even more pleasing. The defense continued to make itself significant, pouncing on one fumble. The special teams figured in two more important takeaways. No, Georgia Tech didn’t rush for its standard 400-plus yards (231 yards was a gracious plenty Saturday against the Hurricanes defense). But when the passing game is an element of victory, then you know Tech is pretty serious about this revival.
So, back to Stewart, who at this moment is a very apt symbol of determination, a quality in no short supply for a team that after the first month easily could have written off this season like a standard tax deduction. But decided not to.
You say receivers aren’t a factor at Tech? Just listen to Tech coach Paul Johnson, who passes out praise about as often as an airline gives a refund: “I can’t say enough good things about the kid. He’s unselfish. He goes in there and blocks. It’s his senior year I’m sure he’d like to be catching more balls but it’s kind of whatever he can do to help the team win. I’d love to have a whole team of Brad Stewarts.”
As a senior, this one and only Brad Stewart could speak to the deep satisfaction of Tech’s third straight victory (and fifth in its last six games), because of who was beaten. At least now he can say he beat the Hurricanes once before he departed for life beyond North Ave.
The experience left him downright wistful. “Looking back 10, 20 30 years from now, this is one of the games you’ll remember,” he said.
Over four years Stewart has started 39 games. In Georgia Tech’s triple option offense, he has probably thrown a couple thousand blocks. And Saturday was just his third career touchdown catch. For Calvin Johnson, another Georgia Tech receiver from another era who stopped by Saturday before going into the College Football Hall of Fame next month, that would be a pretty good three quarters.
But if you’re going to measure Stewart’s importance to a Georgia Tech season by numbers, then you are missing the point.
You must be able to work in unmeasurables – the way Stewart throws himself into every thankless block, the enthusiasm for work that would drive other receivers slowly mad, the acting out of every football cliche about the primacy of team.
“He works his butt off, from stretching extra to going hard in the weight room,” Tech quarterback TaQuon Marshall said of his receiver.
And that makes him a popular sort in the huddle.
“We don’t throw the ball that much in our offense, but he blocks his butt off every single play. So, it’s always awesome to be able to put the ball in his hands, especially when he scores. He’s scored twice this year. It’s always awesome to be able to celebrate with him,” said Marshall, whose delivery Saturday traveled 31 yards to find a surprisingly open Stewart in the end zone.
On Georgia Tech’s first score of the night, a 28-yard Marshall run, Stewart was doing more of what Stewart has done for the entirety of his scholarship. He blocked off his defender and cleared the last few yards of Marshall’s path.
Others in Stewart’s position might mutter the required words about doing whatever it takes to win, about how a solid block is every bit as fulfilling as a big catch. Like they’re reading from a cue card.
But when Stewart says it, the conviction hits the listener with the undeniability of a cinder block.
“Honestly, I get really excited if I’m making a crucial block. That one where TaQuon scored, I was sealing the guy and I was a little more fired up about that one than the touchdown,” he said.
“I just love being around the team. When we’re successful, oh, my gosh, it’s a great feeling to be around. It’s contagious. Being in the triple option for four years now – I love what I do. To have those plays once or twice a game where you have to be the man and make the play, I mean, what more can you ask for?”
Imagine loving a job that others in his position might consider, well, just plain distasteful.
Georgia Tech has made real progress in rescuing a season. Just reaching the minimum requirement of any halfway serious program – bowl eligibility – has represented geometric improvement from September to now.
If it was possible to put a voice to what it has taken to bring itself back this far, that voice just might, as unlikely as it may seem, belong to a Georgia Tech receiver.
Because you don’t overcome the start the Yellow Jackets had without thinking like this:
“Every down, every play on the sideline, I just want us to be so successful,” Stewart said.
“Like Coach Johnson said these last couple weeks, just do your job. The guy to the left of you and the guy to right of you are going to do their jobs so you need to focus on what you have to do. For me, a lot of the times it’s perimeter blocking. Some of the time, (the play) doesn’t even get there. But that one time it does, like today when TaQuon scored, it was a huge block. It’s consistency and loving the game and loving to win. Really not loving to win, but hating to lose. Winning’s awesome. But I really hate to lose.”