In Aug. 2006, Dan Radakovich was less than six months into his tenure as Georgia Tech’s athletic director when he contracted with Wofford to play the 2014 season opener.
Saturday, with games down the street from Bobby Dodd Stadium and up Ga. 316 attracting national attention, Tech’s 38-19 win over Wofford strained to nudge the meter. But the $250,000 that Radakovich agreed to pay Wofford to serve as an appetizer proved money well spent.
Under sunny skies and amidst steamy heat, a team with six players making their starting debuts worked out jitters and got a better look at its weaknesses against the FCS Terriers.
“We had a lot of guys who hadn’t played, and early on, you could tell,” coach Paul Johnson said. “There was a lot of nerves going on.”
The Jackets gave a hint of what may be to come over the next 11 games in the regular season. The offense has a chance to be dangerous. The defense needs a little bit of work.
“We played OK,” said safety Jamal Golden, who returned to the field after suffering a season-ending shoulder injury last September. “Not good enough, but we played OK.”
Tech (1-0) won its eighth consecutive home opener, all against FCS-level opponents. It took some doing. The Jackets scored on only one of their first four possessions, following a 78-yard touchdown drive with a three-and-out, a missed 31-yard field-goal try and a five-and-out.
Said B-back Zach Laskey, “We were a little out of whack.”
With 51 seconds left in the first half, Wofford actually took a 9-7 lead on a 92-yard touchdown run by running back Ray Smith right up the middle of the field before order began to restore itself.
Early on, with Wofford committing itself to stopping the interior running game, Tech was unable to take advantage on the perimeter, particularly as quarterback Justin Thomas struggled with his reads on option plays and repeatedly overthrew downfield targets.
“I was saying to myself, ‘You’ve just got to calm down and get the throws down,’” said Thomas, who made his first career start.
After the Wofford touchdown run, Thomas began to heed his instructions. To that point, he had completed four of eight passes for 47 yards and no touchdowns. After that, including a 33-yard strike to A-back Tony Zenon to set up a half-ending field goal, he completed his final seven passes for 235 yards and two touchdowns. His 282 passing yards were the most by a Tech quarterback under Johnson, surpassing Tevin Washington’s 271-yard effort against Western Carolina in the 2011 opener.
“Now, the way he played in the second half I think is more realistic of the way he plays,” Johnson said of Thomas. “I think he settled down.”
Wofford (0-1) dragged the Jackets defense for scoring drives measuring 53, 94, 41 and 75 yards, holding the ball for 31:26. The Terriers converted five of 13 third downs. Tech missed a number of tackles and often took poor angles in pursuit of the ball.
The most ungainly play was Smith’s 92-yard touchdown run, an up-the-gut option play that exploited safety Isaiah Johnson playing out of position. It broke Tech’s school record for longest rush by an opponent and was the second longest run in Bobby Dodd Stadium history, following former A-back Orwin Smith’s 95-yard touchdown run against Kansas in 2011.
Defensive coordinator Ted Roof “said that he’ll take the blame for it, but, in all honesty, it’s us out there playing,” linebacker Quayshawn Nealy said. “We are a team at the end of the day. We just made a mistake on an assignment and they hit for a big play.”
Against the Terriers, the Jackets experienced the sticky resilience that their own opponents often endure. Wofford’s triple-option offense controlled the clock, steadily churning out first downs. Only until Tech rose up with an emphatic three-and-out midway through the fourth quarter did the Terriers begin to wilt.
Said Johnson, “What it does is it puts an unbelievable amount of pressure on you from a play-calling standpoint. It’s hard to take chances sometimes.”
The Jackets move forward to next Saturday’s game at Tulane, which will be opening up a new on-campus stadium.
“We’ve got to make a huge improvement from game one to game two,” Johnson said. “Hopefully, we will.”