ATLANTA — All the hours in the weight room, the days spent listening to critics vilify their new offense and a multitude of memorable, split-second moments have led the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets to this point.
A year full of unexpected events, Georgia Tech’s 2008 season has reached a full-pitch crescendo tonight, as it culminates with the highly anticipated Chick-fil-A Bowl between the Yellow Jackets and defending national champion LSU. Riding an unrelenting wave of momentum that began with their Aug. 28 season-opening blowout win over Jacksonville State, the Yellow Jackets hope to nail down an emphatic end to their season tonight and head toward similar success next season.
“The bowl game is kind of both. It’s an exclamation point on this season, and it can kind of be a springboard into next season, as well,” Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson said.
But while the entire 115-man roster is seeking such a performance, there is one player in particular who has the ability to use this game to provide that dramatic conclusion to his sophomore campaign while also launching his expected future success.
Just 146 yards shy of surpassing former Yellow Jackets running back Tashard Choice for second-place on Georgia Tech’s single-season rushing list, B-back Jonathan Dwyer is in position tonight to continue his steady climb in the Georgia Tech record books. And with two seasons left, there’s a chance that he could someday shatter other records.
To fellow running back Roddy Jones, Dwyer’s performance during this inaugural season under Johnson’s option offense negates naysayers of the run-based scheme.
“It definitely shows that this can work,” said Jones, an A-back. “Jon’s a very talented player, and he deserves every record that he gets, and I hope he gets them all. But I think it kind of shows people that it’s not 3 yards and a cloud of dust and that it’s not going to be an offense where it’s a dead end (for a running back’s future). Jon, as a back, is going to go on to the NFL and compete at the next level, and he showed that if you have talent and you come prepared to play in this offense, it’s definitely going to show.”
Securing All-ACC honors, as well as the conference’s player of the year award, Dwyer led the ACC in rushing during the regular season, averaging 110.7 yards per game. His 1,328 total rushing yards this year place him in sixth place on Georgia Tech’s single-season list, and his 1,764 career rushing yards place him 12th on the school’s career list. If he amasses just 31 yards in tonight’s game, he can move into 10th place on that list.
“We haven’t had a lot of depth because of numbers, and for the most part, Jon’s come to work every day,” Johnson said. “I get on him sometimes for not taking every rep, but he’s taken a lot of reps and he’s practiced hard. He did that in the spring. To his credit, he never complained in the spring when he was getting killed everyday when we were trying to put the (option) in and the defense mauled him.”
Apparently, that daily B-back mauling was great preparation, because just three weeks into the season, the sophomore experienced it yet again, when a large Virginia Tech defensive line became committed to taking him out of the ACC contest. Crashing on Dwyer each time he tried to run the ball inside, the Hokies held him to his lowest rushing tally of the season — 28 yards.
Despite that output, Johnson said the game marked Dwyer’s defining moment of the season.
“They were bound and determined to take him out of the game, and they did, and he never complained. He just kept plugging,” Johnson said, “and I know that was frustrating. Jon has a lot of ability and a lot of talent, so I know that was frustrating for him, but we didn’t have enough of the offense in to give him the ball in some other areas at that time. He’s grown up a lot, he’s matured a lot, and he’s handling his off-the-field stuff a lot better, which makes me real proud of him. I’m talking about school, accountability, being where he’s supposed to be, all those things.”
Following the Yellow Jackets’ 20-17 loss to the Hokies, Georgia Tech found time in later weeks to install more of its option package and to mix up the types of carries Dwyer would need whenever teams starting keying on him like Virginia Tech. In their observations of Dwyer, LSU’s staff has seen just how expansive Dwyer’s current role in Georgia Tech’s offense is. If the Tigers can’t consistently contain him, there a chance that he could run all over them, Tigers defensive end Kirston Pittman said.
“(Georgia Tech’s offense) is still pretty complicated because if you get your eyes out of position or if you take one false step or if you have any wasted motion in your steps, that could be the difference between a 3-yard gain and a 60-yard touchdown with the guys ending up hitting their heads on the field goal posts,” Pittman said. “Everyone just has to be fundamentally sound and assignment sound and we can maybe have some kind of success.
LSU co-defensive coordinator Doug Mallory echoed those sentiments.
“In Dwyer, there’s a young man that if you don’t take care of the dive inside, then, instead of your prototypical fullback that’s going to take it 8 to 10 yards, this young man has the ability to take it 60, 70, 80 yards for a touchdown,” Mallory said.
On four occasions this season, Dwyer rushed for touchdowns longer than 60 yards, with the longest — an 88-yard score against Mississippi State — ending up being the longest run in school history.
As a result of those big carries, Johnson believes Dwyer doesn’t need tonight’s stage to prove that he should enter next season regarded as one of the nation’s top running backs.
“Jonathan Dwyer has done enough this year that he should be on the (national) radar already,” Johnson said. “I don’t think this game is going to make or break him.
“He’s done what we’ve asked him to do, and if he has a big day, that’ll be good for Georgia Tech. And if he doesn’t have a good day and we win, he’ll be just as happy as if he had a good day. So hopefully John’s already on the radar. I know I’m a little biased, but I think Jon’s a really good player.”