SHREVEPORT, La. -- Fumble inside the red zone? Check.
Special teams miscues? Check.
Last-second interception? Check.
The same losing formula that accompanied Georgia Tech often throughout the regular season crept back into the fold Monday evening at Independence Stadium, as the tough-luck Yellow Jackets watched yet another ballgame slip mercilessly out of their grasp.
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In a game that Georgia Tech owned offensively and defensively for two quarters, Air Force eked out a 14-7 victory that gave the Falcons a nine-win record and the Independence Bowl trophy.
“It was kind of a microcosm of our season,” Yellow Jackets head coach Paul Johnson said from the postgame podium. “It really was.”
The loss propelled the Yellow Jackets (6-7) to their sixth straight bowl loss, their third under Johnson and their first losing season since 1996. It also marked their fifth loss in the final six games of this season.
Streaking to an early 7-3 lead, however, it appeared the Yellow Jackets were headed for a much different fate.
Early on, Georgia Tech rode the shoulders of B-back Anthony Allen, who piled in a 5-yard touchdown run in the first quarter. As the senior celebrated briefly with teammates in the end zone, it appeared a comfortable Yellow Jackets team was off and running to a good start.
But then, halftime came along, and the tides quickly changed.
At the start of the fourth quarter, the Yellow Jackets were in good shape. They had the ball and were in the middle of one of their long, patented, yard-eating, clock-chewing drives. It appeared they were about to take a one-touchdown lead that may have proved valuable down the stretch.
If only they knew how valuable.
After eight-and-a-half minutes on the drive, Yellow Jackets quarterback Tevin Washington did something the team has now accomplished three times in the last three games: he fumbled in goal-line territory.
After rushing six previous times on the 19-play drive, Washington was trying to rush for at least one yard for a first-down, and to place himself inside Air Force’s (9-4) 5-yard line. But with the ball popping loose and the Falcons recovering it, that scoring opportunity was dashed.
“It’s just very disappointing,” Johnson said. “I really thought we had the game right where we wanted it (on that drive).”
Following the fumble, Air Force stalled on its next drive in three plays, but another Yellow Jackets fumble kept the Falcons’ scoring hopes alive. Punt returner Daniel MacKayhan -- filling in for starting returner Jerrard Tarrant who had been hurt earlier in the defensive series -- fumbled the ball when he overran it and watched it sail through his hands.
While Air Force wouldn’t take advantage of that fumble, they would take advantage of another MacKayhan muff, when, in the closing seconds of the third quarter, he dropped a ball that he was trying to fair catch. It was recovered by Air Force at the Georgia Tech 14.
Four plays later, the drive ended in a 3-yard touchdown run, and Air Force converted a 2-point conversion to go up 14-7. It was a lead it would retain.
Asked about thinking about using another returner on the second return, like specialist B.J. Bostic, Johnson was adamant in his decision.
“He’s been the backup punt returner all year,” Johnson said of MacKayhan, who had just one punt return before Monday. “Don’t lay it on him. Don’t lay this loss on him. It’s not his fault.”
Similar sentiments were shared in the locker room, A-back Roddy Jones said.
“Stuff like that happens, you’ve got to put it behind you,” Jones said. “It hurt us, but he’s got a bright future ahead of him. He’s got a couple more years, so he’s just got to put it behind him.”
Following the Falcons’ touchdown, Air Force missed a field goal with 1:48 remaining in the game to set up a desperate final Georgia Tech drive.
After the Yellow Jackets charged toward the Falcons’ 21, Georgia Tech’s game ended when Washington threw an interception with 11 seconds remaining. It was the same ending that he saw against Georgia in the Yellow Jackets’ previous game, and against Virginia Tech, when he first came in to relieve starter Joshua Nesbitt.
“To not have success is really frustrating,” Johnson said of the season. “It’s been very frustrating because this is just the second time I’ve had this happen to me as a head coach in 14 years of coaching.”
Only once had Johnson previously had a losing record -- in 2002, his first year coaching Navy.