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Top Ten of the Last Ten, #6: 2008 @ georgia

Ending a streak in a big way

Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets v Georgia Bulldogs
They earned ‘em.
Photo by Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images

Streaks are powerful things. Get one going and it gets into your opponents’ psyches. Get it going long enough and it almost becomes a part of you. And, of course, major college rivalries are often highlighted by streaks. Georgia Tech holds the longest winning streak in Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate: Bobby Dodd himself vanquished the Bulldogs from 1949-56. But Georgia has come close twice, winning seven in a row from 1991-1997, and again from 2001-2007. Not so coincidentally, the beginning of that second streak coincides with the arrival of Mark Richt in Athens, and in each of his first seven years he beat the Yellow Jackets like clockwork.

2008 was shaping up to be different. The Jackets had jettisoned Chan Gailey and replaced him with Navy coach Paul Johnson, who brought his unusual flexbone offense with him. The initial results were impressive; with another coach’s players who still hadn’t fully adjusted to this new offense, Johnson had already won eight games, the most recent a shellacking of a ranked Miami game on national television. But the rivalry game against Georgia overshadows everything, and Johnson was about to get his first taste of it on a dreary, drizzly afternoon in Athens.

Allow me to pause for a moment, dear reader, and inject a personal element into this story. The Bulldogs were lead by previous top-ten recruit and future #1 NFL draft pick Matthew Stafford, from Dallas, Texas. Before enrolling at Georgia, he was the quarterback at my high school. His senior year he led the team to an undefeated season and a state championship. In short order I went from cheering him on to cheering for his failure. That day in Athens would be my final chance to see him in person, and I wanted nothing more than to see him go home disappointed.

On the first possession of the game, Georgia moved the ball with ease. Sure, an uncalled hold may have allowed Stafford to connect to freshman AJ Green, who was brought down just before the goal line, but you expect this when you travel to Athens. Two consecutive gives to Knowshon Moreno resulted in Moreno getting tossed back twice, but on third down, Stafford connected to Tripp Chandler. Chandler caught five passes on this, his senior season. This was his only touchdown. Good for him.

Blair Walsh’s first kickoff for Georgia sailed out of bounds. Surely this was not foreshadowing anything. Tech’s first play was a pass, completed to Demaryius Thomas for 19 yards. It was their only completed pass of the day. Ultimately, though, the Jackets’ first drive would fizzle out. Facing fourth and short at Georgia’s 33, Paul Johnson unsurprisingly elected to go for it, but Josh Nesbitt’s pass to Correy Earls was a bit far. The crowd roared. Richt’s eighth game against Tech was already starting to look a lot like the first seven.

The Jackets didn't panic, even though Georgia's next play was a 31 yard competition to Kenneth Harris. Three plays later, the Bulldogs were facing 4th and 7, and Richt made an _uncharacteristic_ choice to go for it. Stafford dropped back.... and was promptly sacked by Elris Anyaibe.

The Jackets fared no better at taking advantage of their good fortune. On second down, Roddy Jones got his first touch and ran for 11 yards - the first of mahy for the redshirt freshman, who was set to have the performance of his career - but three plays later Tech had to punt again. It wasn't until Georgia's next possession the Jackets got their first big break. On third down, Stafford floated a pass that landed right into the waiting hands of Morgan Burnett, who took the ball and ran it all the way back to the enzone. It was his seventh of the year, giving him a share of that season's interceptions title, and more importantly finally getting the Jackets on the board. Unfortunately, they couldn't tie it up. In the rain Chandler Anderson fumbled the PAT snap. He attempted to improvise a two point conversion play; unsurprisingly, he did not succeed.

Georgia was quick to widen their lead again, going 75 yards in just eight plays on their next possession. Moreno accounted for 38 of those yards on four rushes and one catch, while it was Massaquoi one again who reached the enzone. Once again, Georgia was making things look easy, and the Jackets were threatening to bury themselves with their own mistakes.

Fortunately, Tech went back to basics on its next drive and found success. On second down, Jones broke another huge run, this one for 36 yards, before being horsecollar tackled. Horsecollar tackles had been made illegal that year, but apparently no one had informed this referee crew - there were offenders from both teams that day, and not a single one was called. Jones, Dwyer, and Nesbitt continued to grind out yardage all the way down to the 2 yard line, where Lucas Cox took the pitch and jumped over several Georgia defenders into the enzone for Tech’s first offensive touchdown. It was his only carry of the day, but he made it count.

This time, Tech purposefully set out to run a two point conversion. But this one was no more successful: Nesbitt, dropping back, found no one to pass to. Tech couldn’t tie. They had matched Georgia on touchdowns but were still two points behind. In a game like this, continued mistakes like this usually proved to be fatal. Georgia, for their part, were in no mood to let Tech off easy. They only needed 2:22 and 5 plays to go 76 yards for touchdown number three. Massaquoi did the bulk of the work, catching one pass for 23 and the other for 49 and the touchdown. Georgia even tried a trick play where he took a hand off and then attempted to pass to Green, but it was well defensed by Mario Butler. (Surely, this was a Mike Bobo call. That’s why Georgia fans are yelling at him to run the dang ball to this day.)

Somehow, surpringly, in this offense heavy game, the next three drives were all three and outs. Tech’s next two drives totaled 12 yards, and Georgia’s in between went backwards thanks to two huge penalties, one of which erased a huge completion to Green.

The stalemate could not last. It would not. Georgia had one more chance with the ball right before the half, and they capitalized. They started their drive with two incompletions, then completed four straight passes to go 56 yards and reach the endzone in under a minute. The game was slipping away already.

Tech had one last shot after that, but needing to go 60 yards in 22 seconds the Yellow Jackets were well out of their comfort zone. Nesbitt rushed for eight yards, then threw three straight incomplete passes - the last of which was intercepted just shy of the endzone. It was the last pass the Jackets would attempt that day. (Technically - there was one more in the second half, but it was wiped away by a pass interference penalty.)

The halftime score read 28-12, Georgia. There was still half a game remaining, yet nothing seemed more certain already than another Bulldog victory. Mark Richt was going to tie Bobby Dodd’s streak at 8, and Georgia Tech would have to wait another year to attempt to break the curse.

Legends have abounded about Paul Johnson’s halftime speech to the team in the locker room. Supposedly, he told them the first play of the second half would be a touchdown. The Jackets started the second half at the 40 yard line after Blair Walsh sent the opening kickoff out of bounds. Their first play was a pitch right to Dwyer, who broke a tackle near the line of scrimmage and took it all the way to the house. Paul Johnson, trying to even the score as quickly as possible, called for another two point conversion. This one was successful. Nesbitt pitched again to Dwyer - to the left this time - and the Jackets had cut Georgia’s lead in half, just one play and 12 seconds into the second half.

A CBS graphic had appeared on screen right before the fateful play, showing the Jackets’ star players’ dismal first half stats and asking “Where’s the sting?” There it was.

Legend or not, whatever Johnson told the team at halftime lit a fire. The Bulldogs started the following drive on their own 11; they punted without gaining a first down. With the ball back, the Jackets ran a classic Paul Johnson drive. Starting at their own 44, they ran the ball and etched out short yardage, again, and again, and again. Facing fourth and 1 at georgia’s 24, Nesbitt kept the ball - and got it. Three plays later, Jones took a pitch, ran left, and found himself in the endzone. For one final time, Johnson called for a two point conversion. Nesbitt stepped back, then charged forward and leaped into the endzone. Less than seven minutes into the second half, Georgia Tech had tied the game at 28-all.

They weren’t done. On the Bulldogs’ following possession, Richard Samuel fumbled the kickoff return, and Marcus Wright recovered it. The very next play, Dwyer took the ball up the middle and finished in the endzone again. Tech had scored two touchdowns in 16 seconds, and three in 6:05. The difference in atmosphere on the two sidelines could not have been more stark: on one, Mark Richt had brought his entire team in and had them take a knee; on the other, nothing but sheer exuberance.

Georgia found no relief on their next drive. Their first play was a 10 yard completion to Massaquoi, but three plays later, Stafford took another sack and the Bulldogs were punting again. With possession of the ball for the fourth time in the third quarter, Nesbitt pitched right to Jones on the third play, who unleashed another of his backbreaking runs, this one for 62 yards skirting the far sideline. Even after a trick play that saw OG Austin Barrick catch a lateral and run for eleven yards, Tech would ultimately be forced settle for a field goal - perhaps the only disappointing moment of the quarter for the Jackets. Still, when the dust had settled on the quarter, the scoreboard showed 26 points for Tech and zero for Georgia. The Jackets had turned a 16 point deficit into a ten point lead.

Georgia’s bad mojo continued into the fourth quarter, but after punting again, they began to recover. They forced Tech into a 3-and-out, then returned the following punt to Tech’s 41. A 32 yard touchdown from Moreno gave the Bulldogs their first points in over twenty minutes of game time, and very quickly they were back in striking distance.

Things nearly went sideways for Tech after that. Nesbitt was slow to get up after the first play of the next possession. He was walked to the sideline and Jaybo Shaw subbed in, to the delighted roar of the home crowd. He didn’t give them what they wanted: on third down, he pitched to Jones, who made a crucial conversion. Shaw only ran one more play for a total of three, but those plays gave Nesbitt the time he needed to gather himself and reenter the game. On his first play he gave the ball to Dwyer for a short gain. On the second, he pitched right to Jones, who took one last nail from his set and pounded it into Georgia’s coffin. He survived an attempted tackle by John Knox and a shove from Reshad Jones, and danced 54 yards along the near sideline into the endzone.

Georgia’s defense had no idea what had hit them. At that moment, Tech fans could heave a huge sigh and look up to see the rain had seemingly stopped and the clouds had lightened. That was Jones’ final carry of the day; he finished with 13 for 214 yards, far and away the best performance of his career and one of the best performances ever by a Yellow jacket vs. the Bulldogs. Dwyer and Nesbitt had turned in star performances of their own, but Jones was the MVP that day.

There was still plenty of time left in the game, and Georgia wasn’t about to just roll over. Facing third down and 20 at his own 40 after having just survived a near tipped interception, Stafford completed a 23 yard pass to Massaquoi. A few plays later, he connected to Green again, who shrugged off Burnett and stepped into the endzone. With four minutes remaining, the Bulldogs had once again cut Tech’s lead to a field goal. They now had a choice: take a risk and attempt an onside kick, or kick the ball to Tech and count on their defense to make one more stop with just one timeout remaining. They chose to go with their defense, knowing Tech would only need two first downs at most to kill what little time remained.

It was the wrong choice. Jones caught the kickoff and ran it all the way back to the Tech 44. On third down, Nesbitt kept the ball to convert. The clock read 2:14. On first down, Nesbitt kept the ball again, only to be stopped at the line. Georgia took this opportunity to use their final time out. The clock now read 1:36. On second down, Nesbitt kept one last time, gaining four more yards and bleeding five more seconds off. Johnson let the play clock wind down as much as he was comfortable with, then called a timeout of his own. 48 seconds. On third down, Nesbitt looked for a pitch play, didn’t find it, and was tackled behind the line of scrimmage. As he limped back towards the sideline, the clock wound all the way down.... and stopped at one second.

The game clock had one more second than the play clock. Delay of game. Georgia Tech fans would have to wait that much longer. Tech assumed the victory formation with Nesbitt under center. He stepped back, waited for exactly a second, and took his victorious knee.

After seven long years, the streak was finally over.

Streaks are powerful things. But eventually, the Undertaker lost at WrestleMania. Ronda Rousey got knocked out. After 111 straight wins, UConn finally lost. All streaks come to an end. Georgia had won seven in a row against Georgia Tech, but Paul Johnson made sure it would go no further. It was a win that proved his offense was no mere gimmick, but more importantly, it made a statement to the college football world:

Georgia Tech was back.