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10 years later, recalling Georgia Tech’s near disaster

As a sideline analyst for ESPN, Roddy Jones’ business is football – watching and commentating. Inevitably, the season’s feast of games produces a power-conference team that nearly gets embarrassed by an FCS team or actually goes ahead and takes it on the chin.

Those results might draw mocking from incredulous colleagues. Jones doesn’t find it quite as funny. He lived it.

“I’m like, it’s easier than you think, guys,” Jones said. “And we were a good team. And they almost got us.”

Ten years ago on Thursday – October 11, 2008 – Georgia Tech lined up against FCS Gardner-Webb. What figured to be an easy win for the Yellow Jackets proved anything but. Five participants – three from Tech, two from Gardner-Webb – shared their memories of a game that they, as well as Yellow Jackets fans everywhere, will long remember.

The lead-up

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In coach Paul Johnson’s first season, Tech carried a 4-1 record into its matchup with Gardner-Webb at Bobby Dodd Stadium. The Runnin’ Bulldogs were nothing special even on the FCS level, with a record of 2-3 as they made the drive down from Boiling Springs, N.C., to Atlanta.

Tech wasn’t in ideal position. Starting quarterback Josh Nesbitt was out with a hamstring injury and backup Jaybo Shaw was too, having suffered a concussion the previous week in a win over Duke. That left Calvin Booker, who had transferred from Auburn in 2006 to play in coach Chan Gailey’s pro-style offense, only to see him be fired after the 2007 season.

Booker was a drop-back quarterback with a body to match – a big arm and body but not much quickness. In short, he was not a fit for Johnson’s spread-option offense. Complicating matters was the fact that Booker had been running the scout-team offense, so he was not getting much practice running the Jackets’ new spread-option offense. Still, it was an ACC team against a team from the Big South.

“While we may have felt like the offense wasn’t going to run quite like it normally has, we didn’t really think it mattered,” Jones said.

At Gardner-Webb, the mindset was decidedly different.

“We had a bunch of kids from Georgia,” said Travis Cunningham, who then was the Bulldogs inside linebackers coach and now performs the same role at Georgia Southern. “Anytime you’re an FCS program and you get a chance to play on an ACC stage, it’s like a Super Bowl. At the end of the day, that was our players’ Super Bowl.”

The first half

Tech’s first three series went three-and-out, failed fake punt, interception. Gardner-Webb had put together an aggressive game plan featuring a heavy dosage of stunts at the line in hopes of confusing Tech’s offensive line. Cunningham recalls stopping a rocket toss – a play designed for the offense to have a numbers advantage on the perimeter – on Tech’s second play from scrimmage and being encouraged.

“We hit it close to the line of scrimmage,” he said. “I was like, Wow.”

Booker was having difficulty executing seemingly simple run plays.

“I think a lot of it happened fast for him during the game because he didn’t have the live reps that Nesbitt and Jaybo did,” Jones said.

The line and skill players weren’t carrying the load, either.

“There were some issues at the quarterback position, but it worked its way to every position group,” Jones said.

B-back Jonathan Dwyer, who would go on to be named ACC player of the year that season with nine 100-yard rushing games, finished the game with 27 rushing yards on 16 carries.

“The way the thing was going, it was tough sledding,” said Brian Bohannon, now Kennesaw State’s head coach but then the Jackets’ quarterbacks and B-backs coach.

Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson, then in his first season, was at a loss during the team’s 10-7 win over Gardner-Webb. “I really don’t know what to say,” Johnson said after the game. “It wasn’t very pretty. Clearly, I did a very poor job of getting that football team ready to play because they did not show up.” (AJC file photo: Johnny Crawford) (Johnny Crawford/AJC)

The big play

The game was scoreless when Tech lined up for a third-and-13 on its 21 early in the second quarter. Johnson called for a screen pass to Dwyer. The play did not unfold cleanly, forcing Booker to improvise. Moving right, he threw across his body to Dwyer, who caught the ball in open space, angled to the sideline and outran the Bulldogs defense to the end zone, a 79-yard touchdown play.

“It was definitely one of those one-man show plays,” Jones said.

To Gardner-Webb, the play may be remembered as much for linebacker Dami Teniola nearly running into the umpire in pursuit of Dwyer, causing him to fall to the ground.

“I’d say a lot of people would say (Dwyer) picked the umpire,” Cunningham said. “The film says what it did. He didn’t and he made a great play in the end. It was a 75-, 80-yard play. That was the difference in the football game.”

Georgia Tech B-back Jonathan Dwyer made one of the plays of the game, taking a screen pass and going 79 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter. Said quarterback Calvin Booker after the game, “It was supposed to be a screen pass to the right. But there was so much traffic, I just tried to buy a little time. Jonathan followed my eyes and I was able to give him the football in space.” (AJC file photo: Bob Andres) (Bob Andres/AJC)

Halftime

For Jones and safety Dominique Reese, one of the most vivid memories of the day was Johnson’s fury at halftime.

This was a team that, prior to Johnson’s hire, had been coached by the soft-spoken Gailey. Reese said that Gailey didn’t blow up at halftime because he could leave the task to defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta.

“So to see PJ coming in and lighting us up, it was one of those things, like, Wow, we definitely can’t lose this game,” said Reese, now an operations manager for Amazon in Mobile, Ala. “I don’t want to see what the end of the game speech is if the halftime speech is this bad. I mean, he lit into us.”

Jones called it “an all-time great chewing out.” He said that when Johnson-era players get together and recall their coach at his most furious, the Gardner-Webb halftime comes up.

“There were a couple phrases in there that none of us will ever forget, none of which are suitable for TV or the newspaper,” Jones said.

The second half

Johnson’s halftime oratory did not produce the desired result. (Johnson often says that one of the biggest misconceptions in football is the value of pep talks.)

With a 10-0 halftime lead (Scott Blair had added a field goal to Dwyer’s touchdown), the Jackets failed to do anything offensively. Out of six second-half possessions, not counting the final kneel-down, the Jackets punted five times, going three-and-out four times, and fumbled away the other drive.

Said Jones, “I think I remember having a feeling on the sideline of, what’s going on here?”

Said Bohannon, “It was a long day at Bobby Dodd.”

Tech finished with 79 rushing yards, a staggeringly low output for a team that has rushed for 300 yards 70 times in Johnson’s 136 games at Tech and 200 yards 113 times, mostly against defenses with far better talent than what the Bulldogs brought to Grant Field that day.

“I think our guys played their hearts out,” Cunningham said.

Tech was fortunate that its defense, stocked with no fewer than seven players who would play in the NFL, was likewise thwarting Gardner-Webb. Defensive end Derrick Morgan, who would be the ACC defensive player of the year in 2009, had seven tackles, including 2 ½ sacks and four tackles for loss.

But in the third quarter, the Bulldogs drove 69 yards for a touchdown, cutting the score to 10-7.

With Tech’s offense spinning its wheels, fear set in.

“I was, like, Jesus Christ, we may not win this game,” Reese said.

On the other sideline, hope.

“When we forced a few punts, I think it gave maybe our whole team (a lift) at that point in the game, we just need one big play,” Cunningham said. “You just felt like you had a chance at that point.”

Against Gardner-Webb, defensive end Derrick Morgan led Georgia Tech with 10 tackles, including two sacks. Morgan went on to be named the 2009 ACC player of the year, was drafted in the first round of the 2010 NFL draft and continues to play for the Tennessee Titans. “I just remember Derrick Morgan having a huge game,” teammate Dominique Reese said. (AJC file photo: Johnny Crawford) (Johnny Crawford/AJC)

The field-goal try

With the score 10-7 in Tech’s favor, the game finally came down to a 44-yard field goal try with nine seconds to play. A make by Gardner-Webb’s Ryan Gates would send the game to overtime.

“I thought I was going to make it,” Gates said.

Gates, now a regional manager for a pest-control company in LaGrange, had converted nine of 13 tries that season to that point, including 4-for-5 between 40 and 49 yards. An East Coweta High grad, he had plenty of family and friends in the stands. Further, Gates said he had been offered a scholarship to Tech but chose Gardner-Webb because he had an immediate chance to play.

It was not to be – Morgan saved his best play for last, ripping through the line and getting his hand on the ball. Gates’ kick was wide left.

“I’ve watched the video a few times,” Gates said. “It was just tipped. And at first, I didn’t know if he actually tipped it, because he ran into me so I was looking for one of those roughing-the-kicker moments, and the ref said, ‘No, he tipped it.’ Didn’t get the call to go my way.”

Crisis averted.

Bohannon said he felt relief and exhaustion, “and I think our kids were kind of in shock.”

Had Gates made the kick to go to overtime, Jones said, “I hope we would have won, but I don’t know. Honestly, I don’t know.”

It would have been a most peculiar loss in a season in which Tech went on to beat Clemson (in Dabo Swinney’s first game as head coach), Miami and Georgia. Either way, it would seem to be the most outlier game in Johnson’s 11-season tenure.

“I tell you what: It felt like a loss when we walked out of there, because everybody was like, What the hell happened?” Jones said.

Derrick Morgan crashed through the Gardner-Webb to deflected Ryan Gates’ 44-yard field-goal try in the final seconds of the game. A successful kick would have sent the game to overtime. “Thank God for Derrick Morgan,” Roddy Jonnes said. (AJC file photo: Johnny Crawford) (Johnny Crawford/AJC)

Epilogue

The game still occupies space in Tech fans’ collective angst. When news of a second Gardner-Webb game (in 2020) broke in September, a fan responded on Twitter, “Why would we do this to ourselves again?” 

Reese still thinks back to that October afternoon when he watches college football and there’s an upset brewing.

“It was just one of those things where you sit back now and scratch your head and are like, Why was that game so close?” he said. “But it happens week in and week out. We were very lucky.”

Cunningham still rehashes the game with former players on that team, particularly when he crosses paths with those who have gone into coaching. He believes that every player on that team will cherish memories of that game for the rest of their lives.

“I don’t see anything out of it as negative,” he said. “Of course, the older you get, the more blame you put on the umpire.”

Two years later in 2010, Gates provided the game-winning PAT when the Bulldogs completed a takedown of an FBS team, Akron. Gates said the Tech miss was tough to swallow for a long time, but he has made peace with it.

“That was, what, 10 years ago?” he asked. “Goodness gracious.”

Bohannon doesn’t remember many details of the game, but it reinforced a lesson that he continues to impart to his Kennesaw State team, which has risen to a school-best No. 2 in the FCS coaches poll with a record of 5-1.

“It doesn’t matter who you play or when you play – you’ve got to be ready each and every week,” Bohannon said. “That’s something we stress to our guys. We’ll have an NAIA school come to our place or a Division II school come to our place. It doesn’t matter; you’ve got to be ready to go every week.”

That would include the Owls’ game this Saturday in Big South Conference action: Gardner-Webb.

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