For someone whose team just won for the fourth time in five games Saturday, Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson wasn’t exactly overjoyed. Even after reminding the players that their 31-17 win over Virginia was something to enjoy, Johnson himself seemed to have trouble feeling satisfied.
No doubt all of the self-inflicted mistakes — beginning with Tech’s first play from scrimmage all the way to a fourth-quarter defensive lapse — left Johnson feeling a bit dour.
Asked if he could recall feeling so disappointed after a win, Johnson said, “Ah, probably. I’m just kind of that way.”
But then, as he elaborated, it was clear that this was one win Johnson was not going to relish. Especially not after coming off a 30-20 upset of Virginia Tech with five offensive starters missing — quarterback Justin Thomas, center Freddie Burden, right tackle Andrew Marshall, A-back J.J. Green and B-back Dedrick Mills. All but Mills returned Saturday, the Yellow Jackets’ final home game of the season.
“I’m just disappointed in the way we played,” he said. “I thought we had turned a corner. We had been playing better offensively and we got all those guys back. Maybe we need to play the other guys. Maybe that’s what it is. I was disappointed with the execution.”
The players, though, balanced Johnson’s disappointment with their own satisfaction. The victory clinched a winning season as Tech improved to 7-4 with the regular season finale at Georgia followed by a bowl game. That might not be the ultimate prize. Two years ago, the Jackets nearly beat Florida State in the ACC Championship Game, and then pounded Mississippi State in the Orange Bowl. But last year they were 3-9, Tech’s worst season since going 1-10 in 1994.
“I’m happy,” said cornerback Lance Austin, whose interception return for a touchdown essentially sealed the game. “I can’t speak for Coach, but for myself and the team, I remember last year we won three games.”
At times Saturday, the Jackets looked much like that 2015 team. The first offensive play was an option that Thomas inadvertently pitched to the blocking back instead of the intended runner.
“The very first play of the game should have been huge — HUGE,” Johnson said. “And we pitch it to the blocking guy instead of the other guy. Then we missed the read on second down, and we were three and out.”
Tech’s first seven possessions produced four punts and one touchdown, a 67-yard run by Marcus Marshall on an option. The seventh possession was a failed fourth down attempt that left Johnson even more irritated. Trailing 10-7 and needing to get a single yard for the first down, Johnson had brought in Matthew Jordan at quarterback, who is bigger and stronger than Thomas. But they missed three blocks and the play blew up.
“You know, I was tired of watching us,” Johnson said of his decision. “Once again, the way that they lined up and what we had, it should have been a gimme play. We couldn’t execute that.”
Oddly — which was appropriate since it was such an odd game — that may have been the turning point for the Jackets. They held Virginia to five yards and then received a bonus when Cavaliers kicker Nicholas Conte missed his second field goal attempt of the game.
Tech scored on its next three possessions — a 54-yard pass from Thomas to Clinton Lynch, a 60-yard run by Qua Searcy and a 41-yard field goal by Harrison Butker that was set up by Corey Griffin’s 33-yard interception return.
The Yellow Jackets might have scored a touchdown but a clipping call on guard Parker Braun negated first-and-goal and left the Jackets with third-and-16.
“Second time in the last three games,” Johnson said, “that we’ve had just a completely stupid penalty on the back side of the toss play inside the 10-yard line. It’s unbelievable.”
Virginia finally scored again to pull to within a touchdown. But Austin’s pick-six essentially clinched the victory.
So now it’s on to Athens, where Johnson has won twice in four tries, including a 30-24 overtime win over the Bulldogs in 2014.
“We can play a lot better than that,” Johnson said, “and we’re going to have to if we’re going to have a chance next week.”