This was the kind of game coaches – FBS coaches, anyway – dread. The only result against an FCS team that will resonate is if the little guy wins. These were the first words from Paul Johnson, who once coached one of the little guys, after Georgia Tech beat Jacksonville State 37-10: “I’m relieved it’s over.”
Not happy it was over, mind you. (Paul Johnson is rarely happy unless he’s beating an SEC team, which nearly happened on Labor Day but did not.) Just relieved that his Yellow Jackets hadn’t become a national headline/punchline by losing to someone they shouldn’t have.
It would be wrong to suggest that the Jackets got away with one Saturday. They did, after all, win by 27. But they trailed 7-3 inside the final two minutes of the first half, and the Gamecocks had a first down at their 49. Another JSU touchdown and this becomes an Upset Alert, maybe even — shudder — another Middle Tennessee State.
But the touchdown just before the half was scored by Tech. Lawrence Austin jumped a route and intercepted a pass that Bryant Horn shouldn’t have thrown. Ricky Jeune won a shoving match in the end zone to haul down TaQuon Marshall’s pass. When next Jacksonville State scored, it was to cut the Jackets’ lead from 30-7 to 30-10.
The team that, five days earlier, heaped 655 yards on bewildered Tennessee was forced to settle for less than half of that (meaning 322). Tech made 33 first downs against the Volunteers, 17 versus the Gamecocks. It hogged the ball for 10 fewer minutes than on Labor Day. “We got on butts whipped (on offense),” Johnson said.
Also this: “Maybe we were reading our press clippings. We’ll have a down-to-earth day on Monday.”
JSU defended Tech so much better than Tennessee had that you’d have sworn the Gamecocks were the ones who play home games before 100,000 folks. They managed to halt both Marshall, who rushed for 249 yards Monday and 224 fewer Saturday, and B-back KirVonte Benson (down from 124 yards to 26).
About Benson, Johnson said: “He was tiptoeing in there.”
Only when freshman Jerry Howard, subbing for Benson, scored on a 65-yard burst up the gut did Tech resemble its ground-eating self, and that was a fleeting glimpse. The Jackets’ first three touchdowns came via the forward pass and were results of FBS receivers outmanuevering FCS defensive backs.
Why so much success, air-wise? “Because they were selling out to play the run,” Johnson said, and he might have added (but didn’t): Because Jacksonville State plays defense and is very well coached, neither of which can be said of Tennessee.
Johnson again: “I think every pass we completed was play-action.” Then: “We were not converting on third downs the way we need to stay out there. The first couple of drives were just ridiculous.”
Tech on third down against Tennessee — 13-of-18. Tech on third down against JSU — 5-of-12.
Some of this was inevitable. Tech played an impassioned and protracted game before a frothing crowd in Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Saturday’s task was to face a quality FCS opponent with four days’ rest in an unfilled Bobby Dodd Stadium with an early kickoff to boot. Sometimes coaches talk up lesser opposition just because they’re coaches. Johnson had reason to be wary of Jax State.
“They’re pretty good,” he said. “Nobody wants to believe that. They make plays. They’re third or fourth in the country in total defense. … They’re really good on third down. We had a hard time blocking their linebackers. I can’t imagine they’ll lose many games in the OVC.”
For Tech, this wasn’t a day to burnish the resume. To be fair, they were more distracted than any coach would have liked, but three mostly unforced Horn turnovers turned this from a white-knuckler into something approaching a laugher. Not that Johnson was laughing.
Someone asked if, having served at Georgia Southern when it was the scourge of then-Division I-AA, he had admiration for the Gamecocks. He answered with an anecdote: “I was talking to one of their coaches before the game, and he said they don’t have an (FBS opponent) for next year. They can’t find anybody that would play them. You could see why. There’s nothing to win (for the FBS team) and everything to lose.”
To its credit, Tech did not lose. Indeed, its defense and kicking were exponentially better than Monday night. (Still missed a PAT, though.) A week that began with maybe the most excruciating loss of Johnson’s time here ended with his Jackets being 1-1, which sure as heck beats 0-2. And he has been handed a motivational point to make before his team faces Central Florida in Orlando.
Another coach might have complimented Marshall on his three touchdown passes. As we know, Johnson is not most coaches. Asked if this game was an indication that his quarterback will be asked to throw more, this was his answer in its entirety: “No.”