An FBS team invariably beats an FCS team on the scoreboard, but that’s the only place where the bigger school wins. If it thrashes Elon 70-0, as Georgia Tech did last season, a guy like me is bound to write, “So what? It was only Elon.” But if Tech leads Wofford by five points with nine minutes remaining, as happened Saturday, the same guy is going to write: “This isn’t very impressive.”
So let’s get it out of the way.
Tech wasn’t very impressive.
Yes, the Jackets won. Yes, they managed 508 yards, 282 of those via the forward pass. No, they never quite seemed in trouble, not in those 52 first-half seconds when they trailed 9-7 and not when their lead was reduced to 24-19. To be blunt, this wasn’t Middle Tennessee redux.
Only Middle Tennessee was an FBS team when it upset Tech in 2012. Wofford is FCS, which means it gives fewer scholarships and is staffed by players the bigger schools didn’t want. But there the Terriers were, within a fourth-quarter touchdown of making national news. The Jackets were clearly the superior side, but that superiority wasn’t reflected by the scoreboard until the end.
This wasn’t a case of a lesser team scoring two consolation touchdowns against the reserves. It was Tech that scored the final two touchdowns. Through 51 1/2 minutes, the Jackets’ biggest lead was 12 points. They were tested in a way that FBS teams rarely are against FCS opposition.
To its credit, Tech passed the test. It won 38-19. But we can’t say the Jackets aced anything. Only in the final two minutes did they put the Terriers to rest, and what does that augur for those Saturdays when they’re facing teams that give the same number of scholarships?
Maybe nothing. Maybe this was, as Tech coach Paul Johnson suggested, a combination of first-game nerves from his men, the new starting quarterback Justin Thomas chief among them, and an opponent that favors a style not unlike Tech’s. “They’re hard to play against,” Johnson said. “It was like looking right back at us. It was a game of few possessions … You couldn’t pull away.”
Wofford runs the wishbone, the older cousin of Johnson’s spread option. The Terriers outrushed Tech 271 yards to 226 and held the ball for nearly three more minutes. Defensively they dared the Jackets to throw. Thomas completed 11 of 15 passes — 8 of 8 in the second half — for 282 yards, so in that respect you’d have to say he had a splendid debut as a starter. Then again …
Thomas’ receivers were working against smaller and slower defenders who were cheating against the run. It would have been hard for the Jackets not to throw well. And isn’t this the year that Johnson vowed that the option will again be run to his liking?
Tech’s biggest running play was technically a pass. With nine minutes left, Thomas ran right and shoveled the ball forward to A-back Broderick Snoddy, who fled 65 yards to bring the Jackets within sight of the clinching touchdown. Until then, the standard option plays had yielded substandard results.
Meanwhile, Tech’s defense could never get a handle on Wofford. Think about that for a moment. While you’re thinking, return with us to the final minute of the first half, when the Terriers were facing third-and-8 at their 8 and were just trying to bleed the clock before punting. “Everyone in the stadium knew they were going to run the ball,” Johnson said. “Except for us, I guess.”
Tech’s front seven all managed to get blocked — by Wofford Terriers. Safety Isaiah Johnson overran the play. Ray Smith trundled 92 ridiculous yards to the go-ahead touchdown.
A bit earlier, we noted that the Jackets were the superior side. This is not, however, to say they were in any way dominant. They made no turnovers but induced no turnovers. An FBS program that has graced 17 consecutive bowls had to buckle down and out-execute an FCS opponent coming off a 5-6 season.
“We’ve got to make a huge improvement from Game 1 to Game 2,” Johnson said. Having seen the effort it took for Tech to distance itself from Wofford, we’re forced to ask: How much improvement is possible?