The Orange Bowl isn’t as good as it gets in college football, but it sure is close. When the powers that be decided California shouldn’t have all the bowl game fun, three more were birthed in 1935. The Orange and Sugar Bowls remain with the Rose as some of the biggest games today. The Sun.... well it’s right next to Mexico, and its stadium is carved into a mountain, so it’s not all bad.
Georgia Tech is lucky enough to have visited the Orange Bowl seven times, the sixth most in all of college football. That number sat at five from 1967 all the way until 2009, Paul Johnson’s second year leading the Yellow Jackets. Reaching the 2010 Orange Bowl is a bittersweet memory: a new year’s trip to Miami for one of the biggest games in college football should be great! And sharing a pregame moment in the tunnels of Land Shark Stadium with the Iowa band is a memory I’ll cherish forever. But then the actual game happened, and nothing was fun. You can read all about it in my eventually-to-be-released book about it, Frosted Orange: the true story of Paul Johnson’s first Orange Bowl. Because this isn’t about that Orange Bowl. It’s about Johnson’s second.
2014 remains an unexpected but resounding success for Georgia Tech football. It’s not only Paul Johnson’s best season, it’s one of the best Georgia Tech seasons ever. Justin Thomas started at quarterback replacing the departed Vad Lee and established his legendary status almost immediately. Consecutive losses in the middle of the season threatened to derail a 5-0 start that featured a walk off field goal win in Blacksburg and a tense white out victory over Miami, but the team rallied and burnt everything to the ground on its way to the ACC championship game. Following a knock-down, drag-out, bar fight of a game against FSU — one of a very few Georgia Tech losses I can recall leaving satisfied anyway — the Jackets actually gained spots in both the AP and Coaches’ polls, and fell only one in the College Football Playoff rankings to 12. A quality loss if there ever was one. Their reward would be one more trip to Miami, and a shot at redemption after the failure of five years before.
But it wouldn’t be easy. Standing in the way were the Bulldogs of Mississippi State. Traditionally one of the lesser regarded teams of the SEC, this team also stands as one of the best in school history: led by Heisman Trophy candidate and future Dallas Cowboys starting QB Dak Prescott, the Bulldogs made their mark by topping the first ever College Football Playoff rankings, a place they would hold on to for a few weeks before running into an Alabama shaped buzzsaw. An Egg Bowl loss to Ole Miss left them heartbroken, but hungry to win their first Orange Bowl since 1940 and leave their mark as the best team in school history.
So that brings us to New Year’s Eve, 2014. Under the lights in Sun Life Stadium. The weather was perfect this time — you were a fool if you wore pants instead of shorts, and oh, what a fool I was. And maybe your friend snagged purple parking passes. Which was weird, because the parking map didn’t have a purple lot. And then you got there, and it turned out not only was the purple lot real, but it was the executive parking lot. Oh, and Ole Miss got their clocks cleaned and shined by TCU in the Peach Bowl in the early slot. It was shaping up to be a good day, even if some Mississippi State fans rolled down their windows to shake their cowbells at you while passing you on I-95 on the way to the game. You needed to enjoy that tailgate as much as humanly possible before the game kicked off and the anxiety kicked in.
Thankfully, the Georgia Tech defense helped defuse some of that anxiety almost immediately. Mississippi State got the ball first, but on the third play of the game, Prescott threw a pass that flew out of Jameon Lewis’s hands and into those of a diving Chris Milton.
Tech’s first play on offense was a loss. Charles Perkins, taking a toss, was tackled in the backfield, and for a second, it looked like the Jackets would have trouble matching up with this SEC West defense. But Perkins gained 23 yards on the very next play. And then Deon Hill gained 14 the play after that. That put the Jackets at the 3 yard line, and Synjyn Days rumbled into the endzone to open the scoring. Brent Musburger, calling the game, described it thusly:
“Days.... and Mississippi State is dazed.... and it’s spelled differently!”
Brent said a lot of weird things on the broadcast that night. Miami nightlife stays undefeated.
Tech’s defense followed its hot start by forcing a turnover on downs; then, following the traditional Georgia Tech bowl game punt shank, sacked Prescott on third down to force a three and out. On the following possession, Thomas dialed up a deep pass to Darren Waller. Waller was dealing with the minor issue of Jamerson Love grabbing several fistfuls of his jersey but, being quite a bit taller, pulled the pass in and fell into the maroon end zone with the ball secured. Love was beside himself upon learning the resulting pass interference flag was on him and not Waller.
The excellent performance from Tech’s defense continued as they forced a fumble on the first play of Mississippi State’s next play. Except, somehow, the referees on the field had ruled forward progress had stopped the exact instant Josh Robinson stopped moving forward, even though there had been no whistle until after the ball had been stripped and recovered. Thus it was finally confirmed forward motion stops whenever it most benefits Georgia Tech’s opponent. The Bulldogs cashed in on their moment of good fortune with their first field goal, and Thomas failing to successfully throw a pass out of bounds would result in an interception and lead to their second. In between, Prescott connected with Joe Morrow the first three plays of a four play drive before taking the ball into the end zone himself to score State’s first touchdown. A 14-0 lead for Tech had suddenly been reduced to 14-13, but the Jackets responded with a twelve play, 82 yard drive that lasted almost five minutes and saw eight different players touch the ball.
Thomas punctuated the drive with a 13 yard run, diving inside the pylon to put the Jackets up 21-13 with just 29 seconds remaining in the half. “Surely,” I thought to myself, “even that is not enough time for a Ted Roof defense to allow their opponent to score.”
Naturally, on the last play, Prescott heaved a Hail Mary pass that was swatted down..... right into the arms of Fred Ross. Touchdown, Mississippi State. That was bad enough, but Mississippi State couldn’t just kick the PAT and put this half behind us. No, that was because the stadium crew had begun rolling the stage for the halftime show onto the field, and it had to be rolled all the way back off before the kick could be played. Finally it was, making the score 21-20 Tech at halftime. One on hand, having the lead and the ball to start the second half was a very good feeling. On the other, it felt like all of Georgia Tech’s momentum had ground to a halt.
In fact, though, the Jackets were just getting started. On the second play, Days took the handoff from Thomas, ran through the middle and to the left, dodged four tackles, and shrugged off an attempted shove to push him out of bounds, only stopping once he was in the end zone. It was a 69 yard touchdown run less than a minute into the half, and it was nice. Musburger deemed it “Hail Mary followed by Hail Joseph” before waxing oddly poetic about how classy Days was in his celebration — before doing anything else, he’d placed the ball on the ground in stride. It was kinda weird, but it didn’t matter — something Paul Johnson had told the team in the locker room must have set their hearts ablaze, because they came out looking to bury the Bulldogs.
State fell behind immediately. Driving deep into Tech territory, the Bulldogs gained 17 yards on a 4th down conversion attempt, but they’d needed 21. With the ball back, Tech ran six straight zone dives with Days and Zach Laskey to the tune of 44 yards. Musburger took a moment to focus on Corey Dennis, who was engaged to the daughter of some football coach, and then Thomas ran around one defender and juked a second out of their shoes for a 32 yard touchdown. Paul Johnson had figured out State’s defensive schemes, and now he was putting the screws in.
On their next possession, the Bulldogs attempted an option play of their own. Jamal Golden very forcefully reminded them only one team on this field was allowed to do that, and Roderick Rook-Chungong recovered the resulting fumble knocked from Robinson’s hands. That one wasn’t getting called back. Tech only needed six plays, boosted by a 21 yard run by Charles Perkins and ending with one final touchdown run from Thomas, to extend the lead to 42-20.
The Bulldogs needed a touchdown to maintain any hope of staying in this game, and they finally got it — on the first play of the fourth quarter. The thing to remember about Prescott was as the end of the day, he was still Dak Prescott. He would end up throwing for an Orange Bowl record 453 yards that evening. He was going to score, but the defense had done enough so far to keep him mostly in check.
Having seen what the Jackets had done so far on offense this half, State decided to surprise everyone with an onside kick — again, just seconds into the fourth quarter. Likely more surprised than anyone was Ricky Jeune, whose legs the ball bounced inside before he managed to fall on it. The Bulldogs’ gambit had failed, and with Tech in position to bury them for good, they did just that: five straight zone dives to Laskey, before he was given a rest and Days rumbled into the end zone for their seventh and final touchdown. The offense had held the ball four times this half, and came away with touchdowns on each one.
Days was shown dancing to “Jump on It” coming out of the commercial break. With three touchdowns and 171 yards on the night, he could dance the night away.
The Bulldogs still weren’t going to go down without a fight. In just over a minute, they were again looking at first and goal. But the Tech defense bowed up one more time, and a fourth down pass fell incomplete in the end zone.
The game still wasn’t over, but Tech could effectively end it depending on what they did with this possession. An illegal block penalty was ultimately too much for the Jackets to overcome, but by the time they set up to punt — for the first time since early in the second quarter — they had burned 5:50 off the clock and left State with just 3:44 to score three touchdowns. Iffy punt coverage allowed them to score one in just 1:38, but their second onside kick attempt fared no better than their first, and ended up in the hands of Isaiah Johnson. Tech fans could finally exhale. Paul Johnson, seemingly never satisfied, flashed a simple gesture of approval.
With the final couple of minutes reduced to a mere formality, Musburger and Jesse Palmer shifted to more important topics, such as Gatorade bath strategies:
The team messed up the surprise part of the bath but managed to get Johnson anyway.
The clock having expired, it was time to tally the totals and present the trophies. The Yellow Jackets had rushed for an Orange Bowl record 452 yards, and Thomas, who combined for 246 yards and 4 touchdowns, was named MVP. (Did Days, with 171 rushing yards, deserve it more? Who’s to say.) Of the result, Johnson, being interviewed by Georgia graduate Maria Taylor, quipped:
For at least a week a week or two, we won’t have to hear about the SEC!
(Rumors of the SEC’s death did, in fact, prove to be accurate.)
With the game over and the trophies presented, there was nothing else to do but ring in the new year in style. None other than Lil’ John’s voice boomed over the stadium speakers to count down to midnight. Back in the locker room, the team serenaded the seniors. It’d been a long time coming, but finally, after 62 years, the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets had won another Orange Bowl.
How sweet it was.
Sorry for the long wait between #3 and #2. #1 will be up much, much sooner. You probably already know what it is.