Toward the end of halftime Saturday night at Bobby Dodd Stadium, the moment grabbed Georgia Tech linebacker Victor Alexander. The Jackets trailed 21-10, and neither the offense and defense had played particularly well.
He got the team’s attention and invoked a personal saying – “NB squared,” which stands for “never broken, never beaten.” Tech came out of the locker room and steamrolled Wake Forest, outscoring the Demon Deacons 25-3 in the second half for a 38-24 homecoming win.
“I just felt like something was on my heart and I wanted to tell them try to get them pumped,” Alexander said. “And it did. I guess it worked.”
The 20 minutes of halftime aren’t only for pep talks. It’s an interlude to re-calibrate strategy, rest and recharge. There’s also peanut butter balls.
Through six games this season, halftime has been a useful stopping point for Tech. After outscoring opponents 82-65 in the first half, the Jackets have cranked it up in the third and fourth quarters, where they’ve enjoyed a 113-46 advantage.
In their six opening possessions of the second half, the Jackets have scored three touchdowns and a field goal. In the defense’s first series to start the third quarter, Tech has held the opposition scoreless with four three-and-outs, a five-and-out and an interception.
Johnson and players provided a glimpse at what happens in the 1,200 seconds afforded both teams while fans make a run for the restroom, flip the channel or watch the marching band.
With interview responsibilities for radio and sometimes for television, Johnson usually is the last to arrive to the locker room. He gives the team a brief assessment of the first half.
“If (the game) is going well, it’s probably not as long,” Johnson said. “If it’s not going well, it’s probably a little longer.”
On Saturday, with the team playing sluggishly, he was direct.
“I just kind of told ’em like it was,” he said on his Monday night radio show. “I said, ‘Hey, look. I’ve tried to tell you all week this is a good football team. Clearly, you didn’t listen to me.’”
After that, the coaches huddle in a room off of the locker room. Johnson meets briefly with the defensive staff – defensive coordinator Ted Roof, Andy McCollum (safeties), Joe Speed (cornerbacks) and Mike Pelton (defensive line) – to talk through any issues he wants to address. Then he leaves them to get together with the offensive staff – Craig Candeto (quarterbacks and B-backs), Lamar Owens (A-backs), Buzz Preston (wide receivers) and Mike Sewak and Ron West (offensive line).
“You may change a blocking scheme,” Johnson said. “When they talk on defense: ‘Hey, we’ve got to kick linebackers. We’ve got to blitz. We’ve got to come off the weak side. They’re keying on this.’ Basically, what I try to do to help the defense is tell them how the (opposing) offense is trying to exploit them.”
In the offensive meeting, the discussion might be focused on how to better handle a particular player or a defensive play call. If a certain play or formation is working well, the next step is to anticipate the defense’s adjustment.
While the coaches hash out adjustments, players gobble up pieces of watermelon and pineapple, as well as sports drinks and water. Besides having a high water content to aid in re-hydration, both fruits are high in natural sugars, which can be quickly absorbed and turned into energy. Watermelon is also high in citrulline, which research indicates helps the body flush lactic acid and aid recovery, according to Leah Thomas, Tech’s dietitian.
“You just have the strength staff and different staff members walking around saying, ‘Hey, who needs this? Who needs this?’ and they’re passing it out,” defensive end KeShun Freeman said.
Among other snacks, a popular item is peanut-butter balls with oatmeal, honey, flaxseed and dark chocolate chips. The ingredients include simple carbohydrates, which release energy quickly, and complex carbohydrates, proteins and healthy fats, which are more slowly digested and provide energy over a longer duration.
Players assemble into groups of offense and defense on either side of the locker room and await coaches to come out of their meeting to go over changes for the second half.
“At the same time, we’re doing the same thing with each other amongst the team, saying, ‘Hey, man, I’ve seen this, you can do this, yadda yadda,’” Freeman said.
The mood can vary game to game, sometimes more businesslike, other times more emotional. Johnson leads the offensive meeting, Roof the defensive meeting. Both coaches stand at whiteboards before their units and draw up the changes. It may just take a few minutes.
Sometimes, Johnson will draw up how he wants to change blocking assignments. Others, he’ll tweak a particular play.
“It’s not that long,” former offensive lineman Trey Braun said. “There’s a lot you can do during the game because you’re not out there (on the field) the whole time.”
Sometimes, Johnson will have a play in mind to run to start the second half to take advantage of the opponent’s tendencies. Saturday was such a time, as he called a quarterback counter to exploit Wake Forest’s safety aggressively mirroring the A-back pre-snap motion. When Marshall took the ball right after A-back Qua Searcy motioned left, he followed blocks from offensive tackle Jahaziel Lee and wide receiver Ricky Jeune and motored 49 yards for a touchdown.
“You’ve seen a lot of times where there’ll be a special play that we sort of come out at halftime that will score right off the jump,” Braun said.
Was Saturday such a time?
Johnson: “Pretty much.”
After Johnson and Roof address the offense and defense, players break up into position group meetings for perhaps another four or five minutes to continue to make adjustments. On Saturday, defensive tackle Brentavious Glanton said Pelton used that time to tell his linemen to change their technique from trying to hold up the offensive linemen to keep the linebackers clean to being more aggressive.
“So we were trying to penetrate, put ’em on the other side of the line of scrimmage and make plays back there,” Glanton said.
After gaining 93 rushing yards in the first half, Wake Forest gained only 17 after halftime.
During the position-group time, Johnson may go group to group.
“You can challenge guys sometimes and get in their face, and I’ll do that,” Johnson said. “I may tell a guy he’s getting his (expletive) kicked.”
After those meetings, there are a few more minutes for players to get taped up, use the bathroom, get equipment fixed, have one-on-one conversations and simply rest. There can be time for a player or two to address the entire team, as Alexander did on Saturday. He followed Marshall, who spoke to the team before Johnson.
“You want a time for team culture to take over,” Braun said.
The routine doesn’t change, home or away, although some visiting locker rooms complicate matters by being more compact. Duke’s visiting locker room is at the other end of a practice field outside Wallace Wade Stadium, transit that consumes extra time and energy.
It goes by quickly, but Johnson said he has never been at a loss for time.
Said Johnson, “I know what I want to do when I go in there.”