Typically optimistic and confident, Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson did not like where his team stood after six games. The Yellow Jackets were 3-3, having lost consecutive games to Clemson, Miami and Pittsburgh.
Johnson said it “felt like the season was kind of just mediocre, kind of just sitting there.”
The Jackets turned the season around, winning five of their final six regular-season games. They beat Virginia Tech and Georgia on the road in the process, becoming just the second Georgia Tech team to beat both the Hokies and Bulldogs in the same year (the 2014 team was the first) since Virginia Tech joined the ACC in 2004. The 8-4 season earned the Jackets a spot in the TaxSlayer Bowl opposite Kentucky on Dec. 31 in Jacksonville, Fla.
“We got fortunate enough and got hot a little bit, started playing a little better and really finished up the season on a positive note,” Johnson said.
In an interview with the AJC, Johnson shared the good and the bad on his ninth season at Tech, one that turned out a bit better than mediocre.
The game that bothers him most was the 35-21 home loss to Miami. The Jackets were trailing 14-7 in the second quarter when they were capsized by two fumbles returned for touchdowns in the span of three plays from scrimmage. Johnson said that the Jackets gave the game away.
Losses to Clemson (26-7) and North Carolina (48-20) were clear-cut. (“We’ve had a hard time stopping them for two or three years,” Johnson said of the Tar Heels.) He called the 37-34 loss to Pittsburgh “freak luck,” referring to the fourth-quarter pass that safety Corey Griffin deflected to a Pitt tight end for a game-tying 74-yard touchdown reception. The Miami game was different.
“That one’s hard to figure,” Johnson said of his seventh loss to the Hurricanes in nine years, this one to longtime rival Mark Richt. “They were moving the ball pretty easily, but, had we not turned the ball over, I felt we could score every time. It could have been one of those games.”
As far as the most satisfying wins, that’s pretty obvious.
“The big win for us was Virginia Tech on the road, and then Georgia on the road, because you expect to win your games at home,” he said.
Against then-No. 14 Virginia Tech, the Jackets were 14-point underdogs. In terms of point spread, it was the biggest upset of Johnson’s Tech career, a line that was set before quarterback Justin Thomas, center Freddie Burden and offensive tackle Andrew Marshall were held out with injuries. Backup quarterback Matthew Jordan provided 121 rushing yards and a pair of touchdowns while the Jackets forced four turnovers in the 30-20 win.
“I thought we had a shot,” Johnson said. “I think you play a little different with Matthew, but I’m used to playing that way. That’s the way we played at Navy. He went in and did well. It became a quarterback/B-back game running the ball.”
A focal point of the second half of the season was Johnson’s challenge to the team to win nine games. If the Jackets defeat the Wildcats in Jacksonville, they’ll become just the 10th team since Bobby Dodd’s retirement after the 1966 season to win nine games. At the halfway point, the Jackets already had three ACC losses, all but eliminating the team from the ACC Coastal race. Particularly after the North Carolina loss officially eliminated the Jackets, Johnson said he had to find another carrot to dangle in front of players.
“So I came up with nine (wins) for the guys,” he said.
He had praise for cornerback Lance Austin, who finished the regular season with 15 passes defended (most in the ACC) and 12 passes broken up (tied for most in the ACC). He had two critical interceptions in the final two games of the regular season, a game-sealing interception return for a touchdown against the Cavaliers and an interception of Georgia quarterback Jacob Eason that set up the Jackets’ game-winning drive. (Johnson noted that the latter was a tipped ball, something of a balance with the deflected pass against Pitt.)
“You know, truthfully, probably the best defensive player has probably been Lance Austin,” Johnson said. “I don’t know that you could single one out, but people have gone after Lance and he’s about answered every call. When they go after him, he kind of stays there. He’s made some big plays. If you ask about a surprise on defense, to me, it would be him.”
On offense, A-back Clinton Lynch turned in one of the greatest seasons that an A-back has had for Johnson at Tech. On 51 touches (35 carries and 16 receptions), Lynch scored eight touchdowns and gained 882 yards. He produced 16 plays of 20 yards or more and averaged 17.3 yards per touch.
“I mean, Clinton Lynch has certainly had a heck of a year,” Johnson said. “He’s made a lot of plays.”
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