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Top Ten of the Last Ten, #3: 2016 @ georgia

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Sometimes a leap of faith is all it takes

Georgia Tech v Georgia
Come on, like there could really be any other photo to pick.
Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

Pity the poor Georgia Bulldogs. They are so starved of success they’ve started to go crazy. They haven’t won a national championship in football since 1980 - that’s 37 seasons and counting! They begin every season with the dream of ending that drought, only to have those dreams invariably dashed. They’ve been especially cursed with bad luck since the turn of the century. After firing Jim Donnan — a national championship winning, college football hall of famer — the Bulldogs hired young Mark Richt away from Florida State, where he’d been offensive coordinator for the past seven years.

A promising hire, Richt fell far short of expectations in Athens. In his fifteen years, his teams only won double digit games nine times. Instead of winning multiple national championships — a very reasonable expectation given the Bulldogs’ history — the best Richt could do was come heartbreakingly close on three separate occasions. Tired of this pattern of failure and a mere .740 winning percentage over fifteen seasons, Georgia fired Richt in 2015. To replace him, they hired the man they’d really wanted all along: Kirby Smart, the hottest branch of the Nick Saban coaching tree. Given the success of Saban acolytes at other schools such as Florida — especially against Saban himself — this was a no-brainer hire for the Bulldogs. The results immediately payed off, as shortly after arriving Georgia scored their biggest victory in ages on the most important field of all - the Georgia legislature. That was quickly followed by instant success on the gridiron: in just Smart’s second game as head coach they won a thrilling 26-24 victory over powerhouse Nicholls State. Two weeks later, they dropped a hard fought but close decision at Ole Miss.

By the time Georgia was set to face their in-state totally-not-rival, Georgia Tech is definitely not a rival, no way, not at all, they were sitting at 7-4, exactly the success the brain trust at Butts-Mehre had envisioned. All they had to do was put away that other in-state school, that they never think about, or worry about, or whose fans they demean and abuse in public at every possible opportunity, and they’d secure another vaunted eight win season.

As for that school across the state? Georgia Tech had already been proven to be the largest of frauds by losing to some no-name team from a small town in South Carolina. They’d won four of their last five games, the biggest being a 30-20 win over Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, but with all the injuries that one totally didn’t count. They were set to arrive in Athens at a laughable 7-4. Beating them would be academic — if you’ll pardon the expression, as we all know the Georgia Bulldogs are too good for “academics”.

Needless to say, Georgia was in for a rude awakening.

The Bulldogs opened the game with a healthy mix of Nick Chubb and Sony Michel running the ball. Then, deep in Georgia Tech territory, they decided to have their 5 star freshman quarterback throw the ball. When Jacob Eason’s 3rd down pass fell short — a pass Matt Stinchcomb lamented as “too perfectly thrown” — internet sensation Rodrigo Blankenship to put them on the board first. Unfortunately, facing east, the sun must have been in his eyes, and the kick sailed right left. Not to worry — certainly these lost three points wouldn’t be the difference in this game.

Tech wasted no time with their first possession. On their second play, Qua Searcy took a pitch to the right for 32 yards. Two plays later, Clinton Lynch took the same pitch for 42 yards, shedding off Maurice Smith on his way into the endzone. Bringing Brian van Gorder in as an offensive analyst specifically for this game was paying dividends already.

The Bulldogs were ready to start playing for real on their second possession, which meant more of the same, but with Eason completing a 35 yard pass to Isaac Nauta sandwiched between all the Chubb/Michel carries. Finally, with 1:28 remaining in the first quarter, Michel broke through the middle for their first touchdown. Tech’s defense was in for a long day, and Michel’s presence would only make it longer.

After trading punts, the teams would trade touchdowns once again. Tech opened its third drive with Justin Thomas lobbing a 64 yard bomb to Brad Stewart, putting the Yellow Jacket at Georgia’s 9. (It would have been closer had the referees not missed Dominick Sanders grabbing a fistful of Stewart’s face mask.) From there, Dedrick Mills and Marcus Marshall one-two punched their way into the end zone. Tech had two touchdowns running just twelve plays and claiming 6:02 of possession — just two seconds longer than all of Georgia’s first touchdown drive.

Tech managed to bottle up Chubb on Georgia’s following drive. Unfortunately, they were not able to do the same to Michel, who racked up 18 and 42 yards, respectively, on the drive’s first two plays. After the two teams traded penalties, Eason finally connected to Isaiah McKenzie for the Bulldogs’ second touchdown. Having notched his only positive yardage play of the day, McKenzie took this opportunity to jaw at Lawrence Austin, eliciting a decidedly unfriendly shove in response and resulting in both receiving unsportsmanlike penalty flags.

Tech had one last opportunity to go ahead before halftime, but a lob from Thomas at midfield was intercepted by Sanders. Georgia ran out the final few seconds to go into halftime all square. This was a definite win so far for the Yellow Jackets, who would get the ball to start the second half. If they could keep up the pace they were in a good position to steal another win in Athens.

Unfortunately.... that did not happen. JJ Green had a nice run for 18 yards on the second play. But on the next, Isiah Willis took a pitch that was forced out of his hands as he was tackled by Roquan Smith. That, too, was recovered by Sanders. Tech’s defense bowed up, forcing Georgia — who’d started at Tech’s 28 — to settle for a field goal, but this was just the beginning of a disastrous quarter for the Yellow Jackets. Their next possession ended after three plays with a sack from Aaron Davis. The one after gained just five yards. Georgia, on the other hand, followed these up with a touchdown and a field goal.

Tech would have the ball to start the final quarter. One last chance to keep themselves in the game. But in this desert they once again found sand. The Jackets got all the way to Georgia’s 42 yard line. Facing fourth down and four, Paul Johnson elected to go for it. Searcy took the handoff from Thomas the opposite direction — and was immediately blown up in the backfield. Game over. Tech was toast.

Or were they?

With Georgia in position to strike the final blow, Tech’s defense held firm. They stuffed Chubb on first down, and again on second. A false start forced Georgia to throw on third down, but pressure from Keshun Freeman led to Eason throwing a pass under duress that hit the ground in front of Michel. With ten minutes remaining, the Yellow Jacket defense had finally forced Georgia into a three-and-out.

But Georgia’s punt rolled out of bounds at the Tech six yard line, and the Jackets’ first play went backwards. Pinned at their own four yard line, things looked even worse than they had for Tech just a few minutes before. Looking straight down the barrel of the gun that was Georgia’s defense, Thomas dropped back — and found Stewart again for a 23 yard gain. Searcy had been even more open, and a completion to him would likely have been for six. Thomas didn’t make that mistake on the next play, and found him for a 39 yard gain. Two plays later, Marshall broke a 19 yard run up the far sideline to set up first and goal at the Georgia 8. Two plays after that, Mills broke through and found himself in the end zone. In just seven plays, the Jackets had covered 94 yards to cut Georgia’s lead in half.

Georgia still had the advantage. With 6:28 remaining and holding on to a six point lead, they had the power to salt the rest (or at least most of the rest) of this game away. This time, they kept feeding the ball to Michel — and this time, the Tech defense seemed to have finally figured him out. He carried the ball three times in the first four plays for a total of nine yards. On the fifth play, Eason threw another pass that was just too perfect — so perfect, Terry Godwin couldn’t hold on to it. The ball flew into the air, and was caught by Lance Austin.

Suddenly, the game was on. Georgia Tech had 3:40 to go 46 yards and take the lead. They suffered an early hiccup, committing an illegal formation foul on their first play. But after a short gain, Thomas found Lynch on the near sideline for 16 yards and a crucial first down. The next play, Marshall bounced off four Georgia defenders and gained thirteen yards before being tackled by a fifth. It would be his final play in a Georgia Tech uniform, and one of his most impactful. The play after that, Searcy took a toss sweep to the near sideline for nine yards, down to the Georgia ten yard line. From there, Mills carried up the middle for four yards to set up Tech’s final set of downs. First and goal at Georgia’s five yard line, 1:33 remaining in the game. Searcy took a toss sweep on first down — nothing. On second, Thomas ran towards the far sideline and pitched to Lynch — still nothing. With the seconds winding down, Johnson called a timeout to regroup. With 36 seconds remaining, it was do or die time for the Jackets. They were down to their final two chances to score one last touchdown. They would only need one.

It was third down. The crowd roared, ready to see their not-rival fail once again after coming so close. The Jackets lined up in their standard flexbone, pulling everyone in tight. Searcy, in the left slot, started running back toward the near side as Thomas took the snap, and took the toss as he crossed over. He stopped on a dime, and looked for Thomas, who had run the opposite direction. It was a throwback, but Searcy saw too many Georgia defenders running toward Thomas. Instead, he looked straight ahead to see the seas had parted. He darted forward and took a lunge as half of Georgia’s defense swarmed him.

He landed with the ball in the end zone.

Searcy’s heroic play tied the game up. Video review showed he had ultimately lost the ball, but not before breaking the plane of the goal line. Unlike some instances in previous years, the ensuing PAT had no associated drama. For the first time since the second quarter, Tech was ahead.

There were still 30 seconds remaining — plenty of time to cause some damage, as both teams were well aware. Johnson knew he had a kicker who could boot it out of the end zone, so that’s what he called, rather than rolling the dice with a short kick. Georgia made sure those last 30 seconds would take as long as possible — they stopped the clock with every single play. Most, however, were due to incompletions. Down to the wire, Eason kept just missing his receivers, even with Tech just rushing three. The Bulldogs only needed a field goal to win, but found themselves still inside their own 40 yard line with six seconds remaining. Their only hope was a Hail Mary, but Patrick Gamble got to Eason as he threw the ball, and it floated into the hands of Brant Mitchell. Game over, for real this time.

As the clock hit all zeroes, the post-game festivities began. The expected things happened, with Tech players planting their flag at midfield and the scoreboard at Sanford Stadium mysteriously turning off as quickly as possible. There were also some unexpected things, like Buzz and Blankenship sharing a post-game handshake.

Oh, and there was the hedge pruning. Tech players pulled off pieces of Georgia’s hedges lining the field to serve as trophies, as had become tradition. It’s a tradition that makes Georgia fans mad. Like, really mad. But they were madder than ever this time. The hedges, that are pruned once a week, had been destroyed. Chubb was so mad about it he changed his mind about declaring early for the NFL draft and decided to return to Georgia for his senior season, a thing one definitely does when defeated by a non-rival. This act of ‘disrespect’ had driven Bulldog fan and player alike insane.

And you know what? Good. Kirby Smart needed to be introduced to this rivalry the right way. This was it.