ATLANTA — The Ramblin’ Wreck’s engine had barely cooled, but Jonathan Dwyer’s sights were already set on the end zone.
Less than 30 seconds after Saturday’s season-opening kickoff, and moments after running out of the tunnel behind Georgia Tech’s beloved Model A Ford, the junior B-back blasted through Jacksonville State’s defense to a 74-yard touchdown run that began a day marked by an overpowering Yellow Jackets offensive attack.
But as amazing as that beginning was, it was the ending of Georgia Tech’s 37-17 win at Bobby Dodd Stadium that drew the most attention from its head coach, Paul Johnson.
“In hindsight, scoring on the first play of the game might not have been as good as you would think,” he said at the start of his post-game news conference.
Following their rapid-fire score, the Yellow Jackets went on to fumble five times — losing three — get outscored in the second half and played with an overall lack of passion that seemingly ran counter to Johnson’s tough, hard-line coaching philosophy.
“You know, I just want to see some intensity and some fire and some fight. We’re just not nasty. We’re too nice,” Johnson said. “I guess it’s a lot better to start 1-0 instead of 0-1, for sure.”
The players seemed to agree.
“Coach is right,” Dwyer said. “Like he said, ‘They beat us in the second half.’ They scored more than we did, so we didn’t go out there with the same intensity as we did in the first half and that’s what he was looking for.
“And he’s disappointed about that.”
But for the first two quarters, the Yellow Jackets — in each area of the game — looked like the fire-bellied team Johnson hoped to lead for 12 regular season games this year.
Twelve minutes after his first touchdown, Dwyer scored again to push Georgia Tech to a 17-0 lead when he flipped over a Gamecocks defender at the end of a 5-yard touchdown run. One of his final carries of the day, the reigning ACC player of the year went on to finish with 95 rushing yards on just seven touches.
In addition to the success Georgia Tech’s rushing offense enjoyed early, its special teams recorded a feat the hometown crowd had not seen for nearly six seasons.
For the first time since 2003, the Yellow Jackets returned a punt for a touchdown, when return specialist and starting cornerback Jerrard Tarrant ripped off a 68-yard score with 55 seconds left before halftime.
Suspended all of last season because of a legal issue which was later dropped, Saturday marked the first time sophomore had stepped foot on a college field for a game.
“It was one of the best feelings of my life,” Tarrant said with a smile.
Along with Tarrant’s blistering performance fielding kicks, the Yellow Jackets’ defense appeared strong much of the game, placing a vigorous pass rush upon Jacksonville State quarterback Marques Ivory.
Not only was the former Northside standout — who was making his first career college start in place of suspended signal-caller Ryan Perrilloux — under intense pressure from Georgia Tech’s defensive line, but he took a lot of heat from the Yellow Jackets’ linebackers, as well.
While having passes batted down by Yellow Jackets linemen Derrick Morgan and Jason Peters, Ivory was also on the losing end of a pair of sacks.
One of those stops was aided by true freshman linebacker Julian Burnett, a former Westside standout who lost three games during his high school career to Ivory.
“I feel like, if I wasn’t able to hit him, I probably would have left the game with a little chip on my shoulder,” Burnett said. “But I did.”
Georgia Tech has a quick turnaround until its next game. With a practice this afternoon, the Yellow Jackets will begin preparations for a Thursday night home showdown against ACC foe Clemson.
Those preparations may be a little tougher than usual.
Asked what he planned to do this week to re-channel the Yellow Jackets’ positive intensity, Johnson said to a chorus of snickers: “Um, I don’t know. Hang around practice next week, you might find out.”
As ominous as those exercises may sound, they don’t seem to worry the players. The Yellow Jackets know any challenges the coaches throw their way will be greatly beneficial.
“It’s going to be more intense,” Morgan said, “because if we came out like that against Clemson, we would have got beat.”