Paul Johnson and his stubborn Jackets outfight UGA again

“A team win,” Johnson called it, and it absolutely was. After going 30 minutes without running a play inside Georgia’s 40, the famous offense banked the touchdowns needed to override the Bulldogs’ 13-point lead. That deficit, however, could have been bigger, so big as to have stretched beyond the Jackets’ grasp.

Tech’s retreat-but-don’t-surrender defense rendered this game winnable at the end. First the Jackets forced Georgia to kick field goals. Then they stopped the team with Jacob Eason and Nick Chubb and Sony Michel three times in the final 11 minutes.

“We hung in there on defense,” Johnson said. “That’s hard to do when they’re knocking us back.”

Which Georgia was for much of the game, which brings us to a greater truth. For as much attention as his offense gets, here’s the facet of Johnson-as-coach that we sometimes forget: He is one stubborn cuss, and his Yellow Jackets take after him, and never more than on this day.

Johnson’s Jackets seized a losing game and wrung it into a 28-27 victory due to Justin Thomas’s passes off play-action and Lance Austin’s right-place-right-time interception and Qua Searcy’s majestic leap. (Think Bob Beamon in Mexico City, or Dr. J dunking from the foul line in Denver.) Mostly they won because they fought harder than Georgia.

The more talented team did not prevail. The better-coached team did. The tougher team did. Paul Johnson’s team did.

That’s correct. Not just Paul Johnson’s offense. Paul Johnson’s team.

Before he took flight, the same Searcy was halted for a 7-yard loss on fourth-and-4 at the Georgia 42. There was no second-guessing Johnson about going for this. He had to try to change a game gone wrong. (The Bulldogs had scored 20 consecutive points.) Still, the fizzle left Tech on the brink of defeat.

Leading 27-14, Georgia had the ball at its 49. Here’s how the Bulldogs’ five previous possessions had ended: Touchdown, end of half, field goal, touchdown, field goal. Another score of any sort would have thrust Tech into going-for-2 desperation. But the Bulldogs of Eason and Chubb and Michel wouldn’t score again.

Tech’s defense induced its only three-and-out of the day. The offense took the ball on its 6, soon to become the 4 after J.J. Green was dumped for a loss. Throwing off play-action from his end zone, Thomas found Brad Stewart for 23 yards, then Searcy for 39. The field had been flipped. So had the game.

Dedrick Mills’ touchdown with 6:28 remaining drew Tech within six, but the Jackets had to stop Georgia again. On second-and-8 from the 40 — one first down had already shaved two minutes and 44 seconds — Eason threw behind Terry Godwin, who reached for the pass and succeeded only in deflecting it to Austin.

When Searcy was halted on fourth down, he left the field believing his team still had a chance. (“Not for one moment did I think we were going to lose the game,” he would say afterward.) Here it was. Tech ball at the Georgia 46, 3:39 to go. Winning time.

Even with a penalty for illegal formation to start the drive, the Jackets moved with dispatch — one pass to Clinton Lynch for 19 yards, the rest familiar runs. Before third-and-goal from the 6, Johnson called timeout to brief his men. He told Searcy, “Be smart. Don’t force it.”

This is normally what a coach would say to his quarterback, which Searcy is not. He’s an A-back. On this fateful snap, he took a toss from Thomas and ran right, looking to throw back to his quarterback, who was running left.

Johnson: “I think it froze (Georgia). It was a great play, a great individual play.”

Searcy: “It was a split-second decision. I saw five defenders go with him. Nobody was in the middle.”

What was intended as a throwback became a pull-down, run and jump. Hitting the Bulldogs where they weren’t, Searcy burst up the middle and, at the 3, went wheels-up. A tremendous game had yielded a proper climax.

Stewart: “We gave the ball to a playmaker. It didn’t go the way we expected, but he got it in there.”

Johnson: “We didn’t play perfect all day, but we made plays. In the second half, we don’t give up a lot of points.”

And his offense mustered just enough. These Bulldogs don’t have the same pedigree that the teams Johnson and Co. felled before, but these Jackets aren’t quite what they were then, either. But they’re a band of stubborn cusses who refused to let a season that started 3-3 become something dire, and they’re headed for a decent bowl as champions of Georgia.

“Not bad for a bunch of 80th-ranked recruiting classes,” Johnson said. “Huh, Mark?”

Yes, that was meant for me. (And let the record reflect that I laughed out loud. It was funny.) I’ve been critical of Johnson and his program a time or two — OK, maybe a time or three — but I have nothing but admiration for what this team has made of itself and for this stirring performance.

Credit where it’s due: Paul Johnson’s team beat Georgia yet again; Paul Johnson’s team runs this state. Not bad at all, sir.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.