In a game going bad, Tech emerges looking pretty good

Pretty good football team here. We can say so now, Georgia Tech having gotten around to playing an opponent that wasn’t pretty wretched. We can say so, the Yellow Jackets having gotten hit in the mouth for the first time this calendar year and having hit back harder.

“To win a championship, you have to grit out some games,” defensive end Jeremiah Attaochu said. “This was a great gritting-out game. It built character. Winning by 50 doesn’t build any character.”

Tech had won its first two games, over Elon and Duke, by the aggregate score of 108-14. The Jackets trailed Game 3, against a demonstrably stouter North Carolina-based team, by 13 points after 15 minutes. Afterward Vad Lee, the Tech quarterback who’s likewise from the Tar Heel State, would say, “I’m glad we got tested,” but for a few nervous moments it wasn’t clear if the Jackets had even brought their exam booklets.

North Carolina scored touchdowns on three of its first four possessions. The Heels outgained Tech 218 yards to 109, which is exactly double, and outscored it 20-7, which would have been more than triple had not Carolina botched a two-point conversion after its first score. The pass by holder Tommy Hibbard was feeble — he had a receiver open in the end zone — but not so feeble that it didn’t burn itself into Tech’s consciousness.

“They ran a two-point conversion out of disrespect,” Attaochu said. “It was like they were saying, ‘We’re going to score a lot — doesn’t matter if we go for one point or two.’ ”

Perhaps the Heels feared this game would evolve into the sort of car chase last season’s meeting in Chapel Hill became. (The Heels scored 50 points that day — and lost by 18.) Perhaps it was, as Carolina coach Larry Fedora said, a case of his team having an automatic check on PATs: “If it’s there, take it. If it’s not, don’t … It was there, and we didn’t execute.”

Duly affronted, the Tech defenders still wouldn’t halt the Heels for a while. Starting safeties Jamal Golden and Chris Milton were lost early to injury; so was linebacker Quayshawn Nealy. The Jackets were trying to slow a hurry-up offense with backups, and at halftime coordinator Ted Roof offered a silver-lining assessment. Said Attaochu: “He said, ‘Well, you can’t play any worse.’”

Tech proceeded to play so much better you wondered if this was still Tech. The Jackets limited Carolina — which managed 218 yards on those first four series, you’ll recall — to 101 on its final five. The Heels had 13 first downs in the first half; they had four (one by penalty) in the second. The Jackets went from making Carolina look very good to making it look like Elon.

Said cornerback Louis Young, whose fourth-quarter interception off a tipped pass stopped Carolina’s only real drive of the second half: “It was just attention to detail. We calmed ourselves down. … Energy flowed through the whole defense. It was contagious.”

This is no small thing. If Tech can play halfway decent defense — for the past five seasons under various and sundry coordinators, the Jackets’ D has been mostly indecent — it can win the ACC Coastal Division. Because Paul Johnson’s offense, even in lesser years, is going to move the ball. With the gifted Lee as quarterback, this would not seem a lesser year.

Lee and Co. spent the first half mostly sputtering — he fumbled a snap and missed the end of Tech’s first touchdown drive after a hard hit — but the Jackets scored with 30 seconds left to draw within 20-14. The rest was no contest. Tech rushed for 212 yards in the second half and hogged the ball for 22 1/3 minutes, and the same running plays that yielded little early went for first downs with the game on the line.

“We still struggle running the option,” Johnson said, espying another dark cloud on a rain-swept day. “We’re not very good at it. We’ve got to get better at it. But we found a way to make a couple of plays.”

They’ll have a chance to make more Thursday night. Virginia Tech, which needed triple overtime to subdue Marshall on Saturday, comes to Bobby Dodd Stadium, and the Hokies were one of three Coastal teams ranked ahead of Tech by the ACC media in preseason. But so was North Carolina, and we saw how that turned out.

We learned more in the second half Saturday than we had in the season’s first 2 1/2 games. We learned that the Jackets could take a game going bad and wrestle it into winning shape. We learned that this is indeed a pretty good team, and there’s a real chance it could grow into something more.

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