Of the offseason questions that have been tossed at Georgia Tech in the last few years, one that isn’t being asked this time around is when the Yellow Jackets will win a bowl game.
They answered that one just before the calendar turned to 2013.
A Dec. 31 21-7 Sun Bowl victory over preseason No. 1-ranked Southern California ended Tech’s bowl skid at seven and has spurred the Jackets in their workouts since.
“It was a very big thing,” said senior offensive tackle Ray Beno. “It’s been a different attitude — there’s been a different feeling.”
Said senior defensive end Euclid Cummings: “It proved that we can play with any team in the nation.”
In his typical style, Yellow Jackets coach Paul Johnson wouldn’t place added emphasis on the end of the bowl losing streak, which began with a 38-10 setback to Utah in the 2005 Emerald Bowl.
“Anytime you win, it’s better than losing,” Johnson said. “It’s something the press and everybody like to make a bigger deal out of than it actually was.”
Tech held Southern Cal and Pac-12 offensive player of the year Marqise Lee to 205 total yards, while rolling up 294 yards rushing. The Jackets also held a nearly 13-minute edge in time of possession. The Trojans also had wide receiver Robert Woods, a second-round pick of the Buffalo Bills.
“I thought we played probably one of our best defensive games since I’ve been at Tech,” Johnson said. “We played OK offensively. Defensively, we hung in there and did enough to win the game. I don’t think you could say that offensively, it was one of our better games. But clearly, defensively, it was.”
Georgia Tech also has had changes to its coaching staff, the most notable coming on defense. Brian Cook takes over coaching quarterbacks and B-backs from longtime Johnson aide Brian Bohannon, who was named the first football coach at Kennesaw State.
Former Yellow Jackets star Ted Roof, who had been defensive coordinator at the end of the George O’Leary era at Tech, was brought back to the same position. Roof was defensive coordinator at Penn State, under head coach and former Tech assistant Bill O’Brien, where the Nittany Lions were tied for first nationally in red-zone defense and were second in the Big 10 Conference in scoring defense.
The Yellow Jackets, who gave up 28.3 points per game last year, fired third-year defensive coordinator Al Groh in midseason, following a third-straight game of allowing at least 40 points. That led to secondary coach Charles Kelly being promoted and eventually to Johnson bringing Roof back to The Flats after Kelly left for Florida State.
After giving up 20.3 points and 313.5 yards per game in Johnson’s inaugural season with the Jackets, Tech has yielded more than 350 yards per game since, and their points allowed per game has increased each season. That prompted a change in coaching defense and in coaching style.
“I think Ted’s attitude is a lot like mine,” Johnson said. “He coaches intensity and effort. I think that will bode well for our guys. They seem to enjoy playing for him and getting after it, and that’s half the battle. I think they’ve embraced it, and I think they enjoy playing in this scheme.”
Under Roof, the Nittany Lions were third in the Big 10 in turnover margin. The Yellow Jackets forced 25 turnovers last season, six coming in the ACC Championship Game against Florida State and against USC. Georgia Tech forced 21 turnovers in each of the 2010 and 2011 seasons.
“The biggest change he’s brought to us is being an attack-first defense,” said Cummings. “He’s a personable guy. I like him a lot.”
The bowl win over the Trojans allowed the Jackets to finish the season at 7-7 and to shoo the 800-pound postseason gorilla out of the room. While Johnson brushes aside any notions of a larger impact, for his student-athletes, it’s one less thing to have in mind.
“Every bowl game up to that point had been, ‘oh, are you gonna win this year?’” Beno said. “It’s great to have that past us, and hopefully we can keep that streak going.”