Georgia Tech’s defense gangs up on Georgia Southern’s Matt Breida in the first half Saturday. (Hyosub Shin/hshin@ajc.com)

Tech gets past a dangerous game (really)

For much of college football’s upper crust, playing Georgia Southern is an unsettling proposition. There is so little to be gained, reputation-wise, in beating Statesboro’s Eagles. And so much to lose because, well, this team in the deceptively plain blue and white wrapper is the kind of home-wrecker they sing about in any of your better honky-tonks.

So, give all due credit to Georgia Tech for the way it handled the difficult obligation of playing — and beating — Georgia Southern on Saturday. As a bonus, the Yellow Jackets’ 35-24 victory exceeded, ever so slightly, the 10 1/2 points the Vegas crowd decided they should win by.

“It’s hard to win,” Jackets coach Paul Johnson said afterward, the truth of which has been too plain these past three weeks. “Any time you get a win, you’ve got to be happy and you try to build on it. We haven’t played our best football yet on both offense and defense. Hopefully that’s in front of us.”

It had been 28 days since Tech last laid its head on the pillow of victory, beating the same Vanderbilt team that just handed it to Georgia. Yes, this modest little triumph had to feel grand, and the best part is that the feeling will marinate through a bye week.

“It’s good to get over that hump (of not winning of late),” quarterback Justin Thomas said. “You don’t want that feeling (of losing) on your chest the whole week.” Having the best player on the field was of huge benefit to the Jackets on Saturday, Thomas running for two touchdowns and throwing for another.

Tech seemed in an unnatural hurry to put distance between itself and the underdog. After running their first 12 plays of the day — three of them going for 50 yards or more — the Jackets had a 21-0 lead. Suddenness is not a trademark of this offense, but it tried on the trait for size Saturday and looked quite dashing.

Meanwhile, the Eagles were the in the role of ball hog. As they methodically ran their stuff, spitting out 83 offensive plays compared with Tech’s 55, possessing the ball for seven minutes more, Johnson was on the sideline aching to get his favorite unit back on the field. Taking offensive possessions away from the Tech coach is like depriving a pastry chef of flour.

By the half, quick-strike Tech (finally, a chance to break that phrase out of the closet of rare word combinations) was up 21-10.

Not a comfortable lead, Johnson reminded his guys. Two years ago, in the only other meeting of these two in-state cousins, genetically linked by the option offense, the Jackets got sloppy with a 35-10 halftime lead. The Eagles scored 28 straight to take a temporary lead before losing in the last handful of seconds.

This time, Tech was more responsible. And when Thomas got reacquainted with one of his wide receivers, Brad Stewart, for yet another explosive play late in the third quarter, the possibility of any funny business vanished. That 40-yard lob was the key play to a 90-yard drive that established a 28-10 Tech cushion going into the fourth quarter.

Tech would make it through the day laden with little dangers.

It got away with an offensive line patched up with a pair of freshman, one that kept its quarterback clean and created space for 437 yards of offense.

It paid no mind to the ambitions of the well-travelled Georgia Southern fans who made themselves quite a loud presence on a foreign field. They’d chant “Let’s Go Eagles” all day, until Tech made them stop.

Deciding, as safety Corey Griffin said, that “against an option team like Georgia Southern you can’t sit back and wait on stuff,” the Jackets defense put in some aggressive wrinkles. The result, nine tackles for a loss.

Still, Johnson was unsettled by Georgia Southern’s ability to hold onto the ball. “We’ve got to play better than that defensively in our league or we’ll get killed,” he warned.

Most important, Tech did not fall under the spell of a Georgia Southern team that played five of its past six so-called “power conference” opponents to within six points. The same team that beat Florida in 2013, and inflicted upon Will Muschamp a mortal wound. The team that took Georgia to overtime just a year ago.

Pick all the nits you like as Tech catches its breath before meetings with Duke, North Carolina and Virginia Tech in quick succession.

At the same time recognize that Tech was wise enough not to circle this one as a victory as soon as the schedule came out. That in the midst of a difficult season it could show up when winning was the least that was expected and the cost of losing would have been just too much to bear.

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