There may be a day in Key’s tenure when achieving a sixth win won’t be cause for such celebration, but there never will be another first bowl-clinching win.
Soak it in, Tech fans. After four bowl-less seasons and a number of bottom-scraping and spirit-draining moments, the Jackets are returning to the postseason, an outcome guaranteed by their 31-22 win over Syracuse on Saturday night.
“It feels damn good,” Key said. “It’s awesome.”
For many of the ACC teams that the Jackets compete against, six wins is practically a given. And, again, perhaps it one day will be again for Tech. Key said as much in postgame comments with greater conviction about the Jackets’ future. But this is a big step, one that stamps progress and the early success of Key’s tenure.
Linebacker Paul Moala, a star of the night with eight tackles and two forced fumbles, prefaced a comment about the meaning of the game by acknowledging that the job isn’t finished. Tech will play No. 1 Georgia on Saturday at Bobby Dodd Stadium.
“But just to make it to a bowl game and kind of create a little bit of history here at Georgia Tech, especially for me it’s kind of nice just because it’s my last year here,” he said. “To contribute to the team with that win, it kind of meant a lot to me.”
The stakes on the table arguably were as high for Tech as in any game played at Bobby Dodd Stadium since coach Paul Johnson’s retirement after the 2018 season. Win, and gain admission to the first bowl game since the Jackets graced the Quick Lane Bowl in Detroit in Johnson’s send-off game. Lose, and try for bowl eligibility against the two-time defending national champions, which really was not much of an option.
Additionally, losing against Syracuse and then the hated Bulldogs would kick the Jackets into the offseason on a three-game losing streak knowing that they had squandered chances for an additional win multiple times.
For some, that the Jackets were even in this position was an accomplishment. Tech was picked to finish 12th in the ACC before the season. Bookmakers set its over/under win total at 4.5.
But the Jackets put themselves on the precipice of win No. 6 with a series of upset wins that redeemed the missed opportunities. Former Tech coach George O’Leary, speaking with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution earlier this week, said that making a bowl was vital to rally the fan base, to gain extra practice time in bowl prep and to have progress to sell to recruits.
“I think you need to have something to brag about: ‘We got to a bowl game the second year,’” O’Leary said, referring to Key’s second season as coach, counting his interim season. “And Brent, I think, understands all that.”
A clear November night and the Midtown skyline provided an ideal backdrop for this proving ground for the Jackets. On the east sideline, Syracuse players, their bodies apparently not acclimated to temperatures plunging into the high 50′s, warded off the chill with electric heaters that glowed orange.
Tech started the game looking as if it could win going away, taking a 17-3 lead at halftime. As injuries compelled them a week ago, the Orange relied on a running back and a tight end to take the majority of their snaps. Where Syracuse caught Pitt off-guard and battered the Panthers for 392 rushing yards a week ago, Tech was braced for the onslaught. Stacking defenders close to the line of scrimmage, the Jackets limited Syracuse to 94 yards in the first half, 63 on the ground.
And when running back Jamal Haynes bolted through a running lane for a 30-yard touchdown after Moala had forced a turnover on the opening kickoff of the second half, the score was 24-3, and it seemed the rout was on.
How could a team playing without a quarterback come back from a 21-point third-quarter deficit?
At the time, it might have seemed a rhetorical question. But this season has proved that virtually nothing is beyond the Jackets’ reach, whether it’s losing at home by double digits to a mediocre MAC team (Bowling Green) or stunning a Top 25 team on the road that should have been taking a knee to run out the clock (Miami).
The defense finally gave way, giving up a 71-yard touchdown drive to close the gap to 24-10, and then Haynes fumbled on Tech’s next possession in Jackets territory. The Tech defense answered by stopping the Orange on downs, but the offense continued to sputter, going three-and-out, six-and-out and three-and-out. A punt was returned 53 yards.
The Syracuse run game began to find its footing. The Orange closed to 24-22 with 7:41 to play. Tech owed its small lead to Syracuse’s botched extra-point try and failed two-point conversion. Another Tech punt, and the Jackets would be staring an unthinkable come-from-way-ahead loss in the face. A defeat would have tied the school record for largest lead surrendered in a loss.
And, finally, the Jackets responded. Behind the offensive line, Tech ground out a nine-play, 75-yard touchdown drive, all runs to squeeze out most of the clock and lift the Jackets into their final 31-22 lead.
History attended the night. O’Leary was on hand along with his 1998 ACC co-champions team, as was Tech great Calvin Johnson. When quarterback Haynes King crossed the goal line with the game-clinching 19-yard touchdown, the scoreboard clock displayed a set of numbers most meaningful to Tech.
“It was wonderful how that all plays out right there and just how this team grinds and keeps working,” said King, referring to the game-clinching touchdown drive, not the numerical coincidence with Tech’s historic 222-0 win over Cumberland in 1916. “When you go through adversity, how do you respond?”
On Saturday night, Tech provided an answer for all to see. Those responsible for it, as well as those who urged it on, won’t soon forget it.