ATLANTA — In a moment of candid humility, Al Groh quietly reflected on the spectacle that surrounded him near midfield at Bobby Dodd Stadium on Saturday evening.
“There were so many players immediately coming up to me after the game that I was just happy to thank each and every one of them,” Groh said.
Currently Georgia Tech’s defensive coordinator, Groh spent the previous nine seasons as Virginia’s head coach, where he took the school, known more for its academic success than athletic prowess, to a string of bowl games early in his tenure. By the end, however, his teams had trouble putting together winning seasons and calls for his ouster rang across the Charlottesville, Va. campus. Ultimately, he was let go last November, allowing the Yellow Jackets to pick him up in the offseason.
Saturday’s contest marked the first time he has faced the Cavaliers since the fracas, and it gave him an opportunity to see just how loved he continues to be among the players he left behind.
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“It wasn’t a weird feeling, it was a very warm feeling,” he said, referring to the sight of Virginia players coming up to shake his hand or hug his neck following the game’s final whistle. “Seeing those players was a very confirming feeling.
“One of the things that, besides the competition and winning games, one thing that we think we are able to do (as coaches) is touch lives and do something to make (players’) lives better. For them to come over, it was very confirming that I have the opportunity to keep them in my life and that they want to keep me in their lives. … Those rings and watches, you can put away, but those relationships, they never tarnish.”
Groh’s Yellow Jackets defenders said he never once mentioned the reunion game during practices last week, and that the lead-up was mostly about getting ready for Virginia’s scheme. That, however, does not mean that they didn’t think about winning this game for Groh themselves.
“I personally wanted to,” cornerback Mario Butler said. “There were a couple of us that talked about it a little bit, but we didn’t want to make a big deal about it, because the media already was making a big deal about it.”
Big deal or not, Groh, ever the competitor was glad with the final result, 33-21, in Georgia Tech’s favor.
“Some of those players, they’ll be my friends for life, but this is my team, and my team won,” Groh said. “I feel really good for my team, I feel really good that Georgia Tech won.”
For the first time this season, Macon native Julian Burnett got on the field in a starting capacity.
The linebacker tied a team-high 10 tackles last week in the Yellow Jackets’ win over Wake Forest. That fact, coupled with his efforts in practices ahead of the Virginia contest were enough for head coach Paul Johnson to insert the sophomore at inside linebacker in place of fellow Middle Georgian Brandon Watts.
Although Burnett didn’t have as big of an impact statistically, he did finish the game with five total tackles, just behind team leader Anthony Egbuniwe at outside linebacker.
“He seemed to do very nicely,” Groh said of Burnett.
Last season, Burnett had 41 tackles while picking up three starts for the Yellow Jackets. His first start last season came during Week 4 against North Carolina; another Georgia Tech win.
Tech pioneers honored
This fall marks the 40th anniversary of the beginning of Eddie McAshan’s tenure at Georgia Tech.
When the Gainesville, Fla. native played for the Yellow Jackets in 1970s, it marked the first time a major college football program in the South had an African American starting quarterback.
In addition to McAshan’s honor, a group of 13 other players comprising some of the earliest Yellow Jackets African American players — some of whom predated McAshan by a couple of years — were celebrated during the first game timeout.
Following place-kicker Scott Blair’s 40-yard field goal nearly four minutes into the contest, the former players lined up along the Georgia Tech sideline, waving to fans as applause ensued. Offensive lineman Kent Hill and linebackers Joe Harris and Lucius Sanford were among those recognized.
Harris joined Yellow Jackets captains Joshua Nesbitt, Brad Jefferson, Anthony Allen and Dominique Reese for the pregame coin toss.
The Yellow Jackets were treated to a few NFL player sightings, as four recent, prominent former players stood along their sideline.
Linebackers Gary Guyton (New England Patriots) and Keyaron Fox (Pittsburgh Steelers) were on hand, as was running back Jonathan Dwyer (Pittsburgh Steelers) and defensive end Derrick Morgan (Tennessee Titans).
Dwyer and Morgan departed the program this offseason, entering the NFL draft in April before what would have been their senior seasons. Both are listed on injured reserve, with Morgan out for the remainder of the season following an ACL tear while playing for the Titans last week.
The Patriots and Steelers were off this week.
Nesbitt on kick coverage
With the Cavaliers attempting a last-minute comeback following a touchdown score with 49 seconds remaining in the game, the Yellow Jackets played for an onside kick.
The surprise was who was out there on kick coverage: Nesbitt.
The starting quarterback was the player who leapt high and brought down the ball after a high chop popped it into the air.
Johnson said he put Nesbitt out there because he wanted his best 11 players, with the best hands to be on the field to recover the high-bouncing, chopping kick. If a similar situation arises to win the game later this year, expect to see Nesbitt back out there, he said.
With his PAT that gave Georgia Tech a 13-7 halftime lead, Scott Blair notched his 200th career point. Previous to the PAT, he had made a pair of field goals. … A-back Anthony Allen’s 20-yard second-quarter run propelled him over the 1,000-yard rushing mark for his Georgia Tech career. The former Louisville has more than 2,100 yards rushing for his entire career. … Quarterback Joshua Nesbitt finished the game with xxx rushing touchdowns, giving him xx for his career. He also passed the 500-yard rushing plateau for the season.