ATHENS — Being Paul Johnson, darer extraordinaire, he chose to run a play on fourth-and-6 from his 48 with 9 1/2 minutes left in the first half at the home of the nation’s No. 5 team. Georgia Tech lost four yards when TaQuon Marshall was sacked. Eight seconds later, Georgia’s lead had grown to 28-7 on a pass that saw, of all things, Tech seeking to cover the Bulldogs’ fastest player with inside linebacker Brant Mitchell.
About here, you’re probably expecting something along the lines of, “Once again, Paul Johnson being Paul Johnson wound up hurting his team.” Really, though, this coach could have tried anything – and he tried about everything; Tech went for it on fourth down three times in the first half, six all told – without making an iota of a difference. His Yellow Jackets lost 45-21 in a game that never seemed close.
The halftime score was 38-7, which was last season’s final. A year ago, Georgia needed Rodrigo Blankenship’s field goal as the second quarter expired to make the score 17-7. He did the same here Saturday, this time after the Bulldogs had mustered five touchdowns on their first five drives.
Meanwhile, he visitors didn’t execute a snap beyond midfield until the half’s final two minutes, at which point they trailed by 28. This was domination at its most comprehensive, domination in the stadium where Johnson, who had won here three times, has made much of his reputation.
Two garbage-time touchdowns made the score almost respectable, but the gap between these programs hasn’t seemed so severe since Tech fired Chan Gailey for going 0-for-Georgia. Tech finished 7-5, and it was a 7-5 that neither tasted great nor was especially filling. The Bulldogs, meanwhile, are about to play for their second SEC championship in two seasons, and there might be bigger games beyond that. For the Jackets, there’s only a bowl trip to one of those destinations you might never want to visit.
“They’re a good team,” Johnson said, “and we played horribly. Put the two together, and you get your butt kicked.”
The result was no shock. A 16-point favorite won by 24 and could have won by 40 had it been so inclined. What was slightly surprising was that Tech, for the first time under Johnson, looked beaten from the start. Even after Junanyeh Thomas returned Blankenship’s second kickoff 100 yards to make the score 14-7, it stayed that close for just two minutes and 36 seconds.
Said Johnson: “We have to control the ball on offense and we have to score points. When we can’t do that, it’s a struggle. We couldn’t do enough to help the defense.”
His postgame mood was pragmatic bordering on sanguine. The better team won, and the better team wasn’t his. There were even a couple of moments he deemed amusing.
The first was the matchup of Mitchell against Mecole Hardman. Someone ventured that it had to have been a busted coverage. Said Johnson, arching an eyebrow: “I think that was the coverage call, probably. Probably not a good one with him in the slot.”
Said Mitchell: “That was their game plan. They were trying to get me isolated. He runs a 4.4 40. I don’t know what I run, but it’s not good.”
The second source of amusement had come on Tech’s first series. Down 7-0, the Jackets moved to the Georgia 45. “We got a couple of first downs and had fourth-and-1 and jumped offside,” Johnson said.
How, he was asked, did that happen? “Well,” he said, and here he laughed. “One quarterback’s helmet came off [meaning Marshall had to sit out one play], and the other quarterback [Tobias Oliver] came into the game. The play call was ‘three’. Three of them said they thought he said ‘freeze.’ Now I guess if ‘three’ and ‘freeze’ sound alike – that was the explanation I got.”
And how – all kidding aside – was Tech’s defense, which under the coordination of Nate Woody hadn’t been quite as flimsy this season, so easily overwhelmed? Johnson: “The offense needs to possess the ball for us to have a chance. It gets masked sometimes when it’s a game of not many possessions, but we’ve struggled mightily [on defense].”
For anyone who has watched Tech football these past 11 seasons, this isn’t a man-bites-dog headline. Johnson’s program has always been about Johnson’s offense. If Tech can’t run the ball, it can’t win. It rushed for 66 yards in the first half, 62 in the second. Ergo, 45-21 after being 45-7 with eight minutes left.
Johnson: “A lot of it’s them [meaning Georgia], and a lot of it’s us. Physicality doesn’t have anything to do with us missing reads.”
Physicality, however, enables Georgia to dominate a team that succeeds largely by wrong-footing the opponent. Option reads become heavy reading if the offensive line is being pushed backward. Said Johnson: “We had a hard time blocking.”
For his part, Marshall wasn’t overly impressed with his conqueror. “I really don’t think they’re as good as they were last year,” he said, and he has a point.
Last year’s Bulldogs had Roquan Smith, Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, three of Georgia’s best players ever. That, however, only underscores the most chilling part about this wipeout. These Bulldogs are the bridge from the 2017 almost-national-champ, which included holdovers from the Mark Richt era, and the full bloom of Kirby Smart’s chart-topping recruits.
This might well be the worst Georgia team Tech faces for a while, and it won so handily that Johnson conceded his apparent gambles weren’t driven so much by calculation as desperation. Back to going for it on fourth-and-6 at the 48: “I was just trying to hold on to the ball. … At that point in the game, I didn’t think it mattered where they got it.”
The fourth-down sack meant Georgia took possession at the 44. On the first play, Hardman ran past Mitchell, who would say afterward, “That was just a mismatch.”
If this football thing doesn’t work out, Mitchell might consider a career in headline-writing. In characterizing one moment, he described the entire game.