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Top Ten of the Last Ten, #1: 2014 @ georgia

There’s no greater victory than overcoming everything

It’s not the longest field goal in history. But it sure felt like it.

Georgia Tech and Georgia have played each other in football 113 times. That’s a lot of history. For much of it, the two played in the same conference, which often added greater implications to this intrastate rivalry, but since 1964, it’s just been played for pride, and a chance to hold it over your rival for a whole year.

Any series 113 games long is bound to have some great stories and greater games. This story is about one game in particular. Possibly the best game in the series, and decidedly the best game of the Paul Johnson era. This is about Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate, 2014.

Johnson’s team came into this game on an absolute tear. A 5-0 start featuring a walk-off win over Virginia Tech and a slow, ground out victory against Miami had given way to a midseason swoon, with back to back losses against Duke and UNC, but the Jackets quickly recovered, outscoring their next four opponents by a total of 175-67 and claiming the ACC Coastal championship. This was the hottest Tech team since the 2009 ACC championship team, and it was looking to avoid that team’s fatal flaw — a loss to Georgia.

The Bulldogs, in year fourteen under Mark Richt, were experiencing a typical Mark Richt season: exceptionally talented, with expectations to match, but ultimately having fallen short again. A season opening rout of Clemson was immediately negated by a loss to South Carolina, and the annual matchup with Florida in Jacksonville had ended in bitter defeat. Worse, star running back Todd Gurley received a four game suspension from the NCAA in the middle of the season. When he returned, he suffered a knee injury, ending his college career. The knife was further twisted when Missouri — a team Georgia had beaten 34-0 — defeated Arkansas the previous evening to clinch the SEC East.

Still, this was Georgia-Georgia Tech, and the Bulldogs always seemed to find a way to win after Thanksgiving. With Georgia ranked at #9 and Tech at #16, this was setting up to be one of the biggest games of the series in recent memory. So, naturally, it would kick at noon on the SEC Network. Georgia Tech fans were not exactly thrilled about the placement.

Noon was the decree, and noon is where this game finally began on a sunny day in Athens. Georgia started with the ball first, their game plan very simple: get the ball to Nick Chubb. On the first play of the game, he gained six yards on a direct snap. On the second, he caught a pass from Hutson Mason for 26. The Bulldogs threw in a couple passes to Malcolm Mitchell, but other than that, this first drive was all Chubb. On the tenth play, facing 4th and goal at the 1, he walked into the end zone. Four minutes had elapsed. Not the greatest of starts.

Georgia Tech had dressed in all white with gold helmets for the game, hoping to echo their success from 2008, when they wore the same. But their first drive did not make for a promising start. It fizzled out after 7 plays and 27 yards. Already, it was looking like a long day for the Jackets.

On Georgia’s second drive, Sony Michel replaced Chubb at tailback. Despite being just as heralded as Chubb, he only gained 15 yards on the first five plays of the drive, and an pressure from PJ davis forced an incompletion on the sixth, forcing the bulldogs to punt. It seemed like the Jackets might not be in for such a long day after all.... if they hadn’t gained just nine yards on their next drive. If they were going to walk out of Sanford Stadium with the win, they sure weren’t making things any easier for themselves early on.

Tech’s slow start put the Bulldogs in prime position to try to end this game early. Three plays into their next drive, they struck what should have been a fatal blow: Chubb, back in the game, took a handoff around and to the left, and sprinted down the near sideline. A bump from Demond Smith allowed Chris Milton to knock Chubb out of bounds at the two yard line, but the Bulldogs were still set up for him to walk into the endzone again.

Except.... he didn’t. On first and goal, Chubb took the ball, and was stood up just short of the goal line. On second down, he took it again, and attempted to leap over the scrum into the endzone.... but he failed, dropping the ball in the process. For a brief second, time stood still as it sat on the ground, before Tyler Marcordes came to his senses and fell on it. It was a much needed spark for Georgia Tech, but they were still pinned deep, starting on their own three yard line. Fortunately, Toby Johnson came in a bit too hot on Thomas after a busted pass play, committing a roughing the passer penalty. Andre Ware, doing color commentary, didn’t agree with the call. Too bad.

The penalty put the Jackets in a much better position as the second quarter began. And it looked like they were hitting their offensive groove, as well: after running a reverse to DeAndre Smelter, Thomas dialed in his passing game and hit Smelter for two decent gains. Unfortunately, on the second, the nearest referee wasn’t paying attention and blew his whistle late — very late. Aaron Davis, playing to the whistle, grabbed an unaware Smelter by the legs and threw him to the ground, tearing his ACL in the process. It was an ignominious end to an incredible, surprise career, and a demoralizing injury for the Jackets. They gained just 17 yards on the next six plays, settling for a field goal at the Georgia 20. Ray Drew broke through the line and swatted it away. A drive that had so much potential could not have gone any more nightmarishly for Tech.

“All the Way Turnt Up” blasted over the Sanford Stadium speakers. Georgia was mocking Tech. On this drive, the Bulldogs used a mix of both Chubb and Michel, with the occasional pass, to grind down Tech’s defense. A fourth down conversion by Chubb led to Mason finally getting sacked, by KeShun Freeman, but he immediately responded with an 18 yard strike to Jay Rome to get the Bulldogs down to the Tech 14 yard line. This time it would be Michel’s turn to score, as he took the handoff, ran to the right, down the near sideline, reached for the endzone as the Tech defense closed in on him and Quayshawn Nealy started to pull him down, and..... dropped the ball. Isaiah Johnson covered it up in the end zone. Georgia, who had lost just four fumbles on the season up to this point, had just lost their second today — both inside the Georgia Tech one yard line.

By another incredible stroke of luck, Tech had stolen the ball once again, but they were down to just three minutes before the half. Three minutes to gain eighty yards, when they’d only accrued 113 up to that point. Charles Perkins was the spark, gaining 25 yards on the second play. But just a few plays later, with just over a minute remaining, the Jackets found themselves facing fourth and two. Perkins got the pitch on the option play, and gained three. A strike to Deon Hill three plays later brought up a second fourth down with just inches to go. This time, Synjyn Days took the ball on the dive, found a hole, and gained twelve. Two plays later, Darren Waller ran a fade, and Thomas found him in the corner of the endzone. With just eight seconds left in the half, the Jackets had scored a crucial touchdown to get on the board and tie the game up going into halftime.

A block in the back started Tech at their own eight yard line to begin the second half, but that didn’t seem to matter at all. The Jackets kept things simple, at one point running eight zone dives in a row to move from their 30 to the Georgia 2. The offense was running at peak efficiency, and was set to give Tech its first lead of the day.

That’s when it happened. The call that changed the game, that confirmed this wasn’t a fair fight, that made the Jackets realize they were going to have to do everything in their power just to stay alive.

The most generous assessment of this play would be that Thomas was stopped short of the goal line. He wasn’t, provably, but it would have given the Jackets third and goal inside Georgia’s one yard line. But that’s not what happened. Nearly four seconds after Thomas’s forward motion had stopped, Damian Swann sprinted towards the opposite end zone. There was no hope of catching him. The play had never been blown dead. A touchdown for Tech was instead a touchdown for Georgia.

No one other than Georgia Tech fans ever pointed out this stunning display of incompetence — not the sympathizing SEC Network announce crew, not the AP, not even writers here at SB Nation. Everyone else just accepted what happened at face value. Georgia got a pass, like always. Remember this the next time their fans try to tell you about all the pain they’ve supposedly had to endure.

The Jackets, forced to go back on offense, were shaken. They started at their own twelve yard line, and got less than nothing. After a false start, a rush for a loss, and two incomplete passes, they punted, having lost six yards in three plays. It didn’t go very far, and bounced in the wrong direction, for a net of just thirty yards. Georgia was once again in position to go for the kill, and they wouldn’t miss this time. Would they?

Tech’s defense, with their backs against the wall, held Chubb to just four yards on first and second down. Mason’s pass on third almost found its way into Smith’s hands, and Richt decided to take the points and settle for a field goal.

Adam Gotsis leaped high into the air and blocked it. The Bulldogs had gotten their payback for Drew’s block earlier. And just like that, the Tech offense had shaken off their funk: they needed just seven plays to set up first and goal at Georgia’s four yard line. On the eight play, Zach Laskey ran the dive into the end zone. Everything that had occurred thus far in the half should have left the Jackets dead to rights. Instead, they were thriving.

As the fourth quarter began, Georgia found themselves facing a fourth and 12 at the Tech 31 yard line. They lined up in field goal formation, ready to regain the lead — only for Adam Erickson to flip the long snap to Marshall Morgan, who ran all the way around the right side of the formation and scrambled towards the endzone. Isaiah Johnson made the touchdown saving tackle at the three yard line. For the third time this game, the Bulldogs were poised to put it away, and — okay, by this point you already know that’s not what happened.

Chubb was stuffed on first down. A holding penalty on second somehow gave the Bulldogs a fresh set of downs, starting at the one yard line. This time, Chubb was dropped for a loss on first down. He was stuffed again on second. An incompletion on third down rendered the fake field goal effort all for naught, as the Bulldogs simply decided to kick a 19 yard field goal to finish the drive. Georgia had run five consecutive plays from inside Tech’s five yard line, and had gained a total of one yard. Chubb had been neutralized, rushing for just four yards in his last seven carries. Even counting two receptions he had in that span only brought the total yardage to fourteen. The Bulldogs were back in the lead, but the Jackets had just scored a huge victory.

Tech couldn’t let up now. With the ball back in the offense’s hands, the Jackets only converted one third down on their next drive.... because it was the only third down they faced. It was a classic Paul Johnson death march — 80 yards in seven minutes and thirteen plays. It was Laskey again hitting paydirt, and it gave the Jackets a 21-17 lead with just four and a half minutes remaining. The defense would need to give one last effort.... unless Tech could surprise everyone with a short kick on the ensuing kickoff. Maybe Quayvon Hicks though someone behind him was going to field the ball, or that it was going to bounce out of bounds (it was close). But neither of these happened; Harrison Butker dropped it just outside Georgia’s 25 yard line, and true freshman Lawrence Austin darted around Hicks and Rome to pick it up. The Bulldogs had been caught flat footed, and the Jackets were in prime position to salt the rest of the game away.

Naturally, it wasn’t going to be that easy. Not today. On the fifth play of the drive, facing third and twelve at Georgia’s 17 yard line, Thomas dropped back to pass. A couple of missed blocks put him on his heels, forcing him to throw the ball into the dirt. The officials, not content with their stellar performance thus far, ruled it a fumble. It was Georgia ball, at their 31, with just under three minutes remaining. Like so many times before, Tech’s offense was credited with a backbreaking turnover. Like so many times before, it was up to the defense to salvage these mishaps.

Like so many times before, the defense failed. Georgia’s offense picked them apart, setting up a first and goal at Tech’s five yard line in under two minutes. Thomas sat on the bench, despondent, staring at the ground with his helmet still on. The defense stood them up on the first three downs, but on the fourth, with 22 seconds remaining, Mason found Malcom Mitchell in the endzone. 24-21, Georgia.

It couldn’t be. But it was. Georgia Tech had had to overcome so much, and still failed. Once again, justice had been denied. It had taken until the dying seconds of the game, but Georgia had finally landed the killing blow. The only thing left was to watch the final eighteen seconds tick off and endure another crushing defeat.

Georgia’s final kickoff was short. It was caught at the 27 yard line by Anthony Harrell, who advanced it to the 43. That left Tech with just thirteen seconds to kick a field goal, and to even just get in to field goal range, all without any time outs. Thomas dropped back to pass, but, seeing an opening, sprinted up the middle and ran out of bounds at the Georgia 36. That left just four seconds on the clock — not nearly enough time to get any closer to the end zone. Butker was going to have to make a 53 yard field goal to force overtime. No big deal. It was only four yards longer than his career longest.

But the Jackets were running out of time. The game clock was stopped, but the play clock was running. As Butker took his steps to get into position, it was clear the Jackets weren’t going to get the snap off before it expired. The resulting delay of game penalty would have extended the field goal length to 58 yards — a tough task for even the best NFL kickers, and a herculean one for Butker.

Richt decided to use his final timeout to ice Butker anyway. Maybe he didn’t know about the play clock, but his attempt to psych Butker out and kill the field goal was the one thing that allowed it to still have a chance. With all the time in the world now, Butker went through his normal motions: four steps back, two slides to the left. Ryan Rodwell took the snap, Butker stepped forward, and....

Butker’s kick cleared the crossbar by a foot, maybe two, but that counts the same as any other kick. Rumors of Georgia Tech’s death had been greatly exaggerated. Like the previous year’s game, this one was headed to overtime. This time, the Jackets were looking to write a different ending.

Georgia won the overtime coin toss; they chose to defend first, as is standard. Thomas and the offense weren’t going to waste their shot at redemption and needing just 25 yards. With the exception of the third play — a pitch to Charles Perkins on the option for seven yards — it was all Laskey. On the fifth play, he rumbled into the endzone for a third and final time. The skinny kid from Fayetteville finished the day with 140 rushing yards and three touchdowns. Chubb would finish with 129 rushing yards and one touchdown.

All Tech needed to do now was kick the PAT and get ready to go on defense. But, of course, it couldn’t be that easy. Ray Drew was back, and he bulldozed Trevor Stroebel on the way to blocking it. In any other game, that would have been a penalty. In this one, it was just one more injustice the Jackets would have to endure.

The block all but ensured that, unlike last year, there would be no second overtime. The Bulldogs were either going to score a touchdown and win with the PAT, or they weren’t going to score at all, and the odds didn’t look to great for the latter.

With one more possession, Georgia went back to what they knew: giving the ball to Chubb. He gained five yards on first down, but was dropped for a one yard loss on second. On third down, Mason found Conley to set up first and goal at the ten yard line. This was it. Chubb got the ball one more time — and was stopped after just one yard. Of those 129 yards he’d gained on the day, a mere twelve had come after halftime. On second down, Mason took the snap, faked the handoff to Chubb, and threw the ball to Mitchell. He didn’t catch it. Someone else did.

D.J. White had had Mitchell covered the whole play. When the time came, he stepped in front and snatched the ball away. He took a few steps, then fell to the ground. The game was over. Finally, after everything, Georgia Tech had prevailed. The roller coaster ride of emotions was finally complete, and it had ended in jubilation. The Georgia crowd was left in stunned silence, while the Jackets ran to the northwest corner to celebrate with the fans and the band, before leaving the field with pieces of Georgia’s beloved hedges, as was their right.

Paul Johnson, in the postgame on field interview, was effusive in his praise for Thomas. He then proudly proclaimed he was now 2-2 in Athens. Later, Mason would give a more depressing quote:

The only thing you’re going to remember for the rest of your life is that you threw a pick and lost to Tech, so everything else is meaningless.

— Hutson Mason

Throwing an interception and losing to Tech is indeed what I remember Hutson Mason for.

To use a tired cliche, you couldn’t have scripted this game any better. Georgia Tech, the David to Georgia’s Goliath, had overcome what seemed like the entire universe conspiring against them to score one of the most dramatic wins in the history of the series. It birthed not one, but two iconic moments in Georgia Tech football lore: Butker’s 52 yard boot to force overtime and White’s game-ending interception are forever remembered as “the Kick and the Pick”. (The reactions of Brandon Gaudin and Roddy Jones, calling the game for Georgia Tech radio, were so exuberant they’re actually audible on the SEC Network feed.)

Georgia Tech football would finish the 2014 season ranked in the top ten for the first time since 1998, and just the second since the 1990 championship season. They did it thanks to performances in this game and many others like it, but none of them felt as important, as good, as this one. It’s not just the best Georgia Tech game I’ve seen — it’s without a doubt the best of the Paul Johnson era, and one of the best Georgia Tech games ever.

Thanks to everyone who followed this long and sometimes lengthily delayed series. It was a joy to write and I hope it was just as much of a joy to read.

Extra special thanks to YouTuber GT Bob, whose faithful recordings of Georgia Tech football games (going back way before the Paul Johnson era) were essential for reconstructing these stories.

And, of course, a final thank you to the man himself: Paul Johnson. These games were possible because of him and the weird, wacky offense he brought to Atlanta back in 2008. There were downs, but there were so, so many more ups, including a team that will go down as one of the finest in Georgia Tech’s history. Thanks for the last eleven years, Paul. Stay gold.