There would be no glorious send-off for Paul Johnson.
The final game of the 11-year tenure of the Georgia Tech coach – and perhaps of his 40-year career – was a pummeling at the hands of Minnesota, a 34-10 defeat at the Quick Lane Bowl on Wednesday night at Ford Field with Geoff Collins, Johnson’s successor, looking on.
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The Gophers’ running game overpowered the Yellow Jackets, and their defense bottled up Tech’s nation-leading run game, wearing down Tech in a way that the Jackets did to their opponents under Johnson.
“Well, certainly, that’s not the way you would have scripted to end the season,” Johnson said. “But we don’t get to write our own endings sometimes. They played better than we did, coached better than we did and they won the game.”
From the game’s start, Minnesota (7-6) controlled play, taking a 13-0 lead early in the second quarter and never leading by less than 10 points the rest of the way. With the Gophers’ mammoth offensive line collapsing the Tech defensive front, running back Mohamed Ibrahim ran with explosiveness, gashing the Jackets for 224 yards and two touchdowns. In Johnson’s tenure, only one player ran for more yards against the Jackets in a single game, Clemson’s C.J. Spiller in the 2009 ACC championship game.
Minnesota averaged 6.0 yards per carry on 43 attempts (260 yards total), well above Tech’s season rate of 4.5 yards per carry.
“They did pretty much whatever they wanted,” Johnson said of the Minnesota offense.
The Tech offense, which entered the game averaging an FBS-best 334.9 yards, was held to under 206 rushing yards. The Minnesota defense, whose play drastically improved after a late-season dismissal of defensive coordinator Robb Smith, had all the answers for the Tech run game. Runs to the perimeter were outflanked. B-backs Jerry Howard and Jordan Mason, who had combined for an average of 100.5 rushing yards per game, were stifled up the middle, collecting 22 yards.
“I feel for the kids,” Johnson said. “I wish I could have done something to help them do better. I thought we had a good plan going in, but clearly, it wasn’t one that we could execute, so maybe it wasn’t so good.”
Tech, which had generated 77 games of 30 points or more in his 11 seasons, went out with the lowest scoring total of its season.
“It’s tough to go out this way,” quarterback TaQuon Marshall said. “Very emotional. But we didn’t come ready to play and it showed.”
Johnson stuck with Marshall until the score was 34-10 and a little more than six minutes remained, at which point he put in backup Tobias Oliver.
Johnson said the limited number of possessions in the game (eight) made it difficult.
“I didn’t feel like the first couple of series that it was anything TaQuon was doing,” Johnson said. “We had to get it fixed at other spots. And then once we got to the second half, when we started moving the ball, and that was hard, but we were moving the ball and getting it down on their end. We just couldn’t finish.”
Not much went right for the Jackets from the beginning and even before the game, as linebacker Charlie Thomas was suspended for a violation of team rules. Getting holes from the first drive, Ibrahim cleared 100 rushing yards before halftime.
On offense, the Jackets didn’t gain a first down until their third possession and scored only a field goal before halftime, just the second time this season that they were unable to score a touchdown in the first two quarters.
“I think that what happens is we struggled inside some but we also struggled on the perimeter,” Johnson said. “I mean, we didn’t block ’em anywhere.”
Mistakes were rampant. In the first half, Tech twice had to burn timeouts because the play clock was running down. On Tech’s third drive, which reached the Minnesota 29-yard line, Marshall and wide receiver Jalen Camp misread each other on a pass play, resulting in an incompletion, and then on second down Marshall made a critical mistake by trying to extend a counter-option play that was blown up, resulting in an 8-yard loss that pushed the Jackets out of field-goal range. Tech punted two plays later, the first of two mis-hit punts by Pressley Harvin, the Jackets’ second-team All-ACC punter.
The Gophers exploited a mistake in the secondary on their opening drive of the second half, as quarterback Tanner organ found wide receiver Chris Autman-Bell well behind cornerback Jaytlin Askew for a 41-yard pass play to convert a third-and-8. Minnesota punched the ball in from three yards out on the next play to extend the lead to 20-3.
“We didn’t play very well,” Johnson said. “I give them some credit, but we played horrendously. Maybe we were trying too hard.”
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After falling behind 20-3, Tech showed some life, driving 75 yards in 14 plays and getting in the end zone on A-back Nathan Cottrell’s 20-yard run off a pitch from Marshall. It cut the lead to 20-10 with 55 seconds left in the third quarter.
There was still hope. But, on the second play of the ensuing possession, Ibrahim motored 57 yards down the Tech sideline to set up a touchdown that put the Gophers back up by 17 points at the 12:07 mark of the fourth quarter.
Minnesota had eight possessions and scored four touchdowns and a field goal. On the other two drives, the Gophers missed a field goal and ran out the clock to end the game.
Defensively, gaps weren’t filled, players missed tackles and were beaten soundly on blocks.
“We didn’t bring it,” defensive end Desmond Branch said. “That’s plain and simple. We know how to execute we know how to play at a high level. We just didn’t play at it.”
The 24-point defeat was the 13th of Johnson’s Tech career by three touchdowns or more, compared with 21 such victories over FBS opponents.
“I mean, certainly I wasn’t expecting that,” Johnson said. “But that’s life. You move on. I’ve played a lot of games. I’ve had a lot of games go our way and some that didn’t go our way. That’s part of it. If you’re going to get in the arena, you’re going to have some of those. It’s going to happen.”
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