ATHENS — They hear it every day. Living and working in the heart of SEC country, how could they not? ESPN has invested in an entire network.
Georgia Tech entered Saturday’s game against Georgia with the same records — nine wins and two losses — but hardly the same measure of national respect.
Georgia, even after losing to South Carolina and Florida, was in the conversation for the playoffs, if only on the periphery. They were ranked ninth in the College Football Playoff rankings. The Yellow Jackets didn’t really get any attention until beating Clemson two weeks ago.
The Yellow Jackets could have dodged the whole question of feeling slighted by the attention given to their oldest rival. Instead, they addressed that issue in the same manner in which they confronted the Bulldogs themselves.
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“Most definitely we have been in their shadow most of the time,” said offensive guard Shaquille Mason. “We were determined to go out and show everybody there’s another team in Georgia, too.”
The Yellow Jackets won 30-24 Saturday because they looked a supposedly bigger, stronger and faster opponent square in the eye and never backed down. Even after Georgia took a 24-21 lead with 18 seconds left in the fourth quarter, the Yellow Jackets refused to concede anything. All they needed was a field goal to force overtime and give them new life.
Then, a short kickoff by Georgia was returned by Anthony Harrell, a linebacker by trade, to the Tech 43. The Jackets had 13 seconds, time enough for one play to get to the Georgia 35 and give kicker Harrison Butker a shot to tie the game.
“We just said, ‘This is the chance of a lifetime,’ ” Mason said. “Give everything you can give in this drive. It’s man on man. Show what you have.”Justin Thomas, Tech’s sophomore quarterback who had contributed some great plays but also two huge blunders, dropped back to pass. But as Georgia’s pass rush surrounded him, Thomas took off running.
“I saw that the middle was wide open,” Thomas said. “What we wanted to do was kind of cover it up, so I just took off and ran. I knew we didn’t have any timeouts left so I just tried to get as far as I could to get out of bounds to at least give us one more shot for the end zone or a field goal."
Thomas managed to get out of bounds with four seconds left at the Bulldogs’ 36. Close enough. They called on Butker to try a 53-yard field goal to push the game into overtime. His career longest field goal was 49 yards against Duke, and he had already had one attempt blocked in the first half.
“The way we were protecting and the way we were letting them in, it was a little scary,” said Tech coach Paul Johnson. “Of course, we didn’t have much choice.”
Georgia called a timeout, hoping to get in Butker’s head.
Instead, the timeout gave him a chance to breathe. Butker, who already had one field goal attempt blocked, knew he couldn’t let his team down.
“As a kicker, it doesn’t matter how much effort you put into it,” he said. “You either make it or you miss it.”
Butker made it. Just by an eyelash, maybe. But he made it just the same. He had hit a game-winner earlier this season, a 24-yarder as time expired to beat Virginia Tech. Technically, this one wasn’t a game-winner. But a miss would send the Jackets to a heart-breaking loss. This one, Butker admitted, was “a heck of a lot better.”
“Because it was Georgia,” he said.
When they reconvene today, the Yellow Jackets will turn their focus to Florida State and the ACC championship game. But for Saturday, they took time to reflect and enjoy their first win over the Bulldogs in their careers and the program’s first win in the rivalry since 2008.
Johnson has consistently maintained that beating Georgia, while satisfying, isn’t the highlight of the season.
“This win doesn’t define a season,” Johnson said. “It’s a rivalry game. It’s good for our players and our fans. I’m not going to change my mind. One game does not define a season. Ten and two defines a season. Playing for an ACC championship defines a season.”
Ah, but it does. Even with the new playoff season, perception matters. Until Saturday, the Jackets had only one win over a team in the current top 25 — Clemson.
Running back Zach Laskey, who had 140 yards rushing and the game-winner in overtime, was more candid.
“The coaches said before the game, ‘They think they’re bigger than you. Go out there and show them they’re not,’ ” Laskey said. “The guys accepted the challenge and we kept doing it.”
— Guerry Clegg is an independent correspondent. You can write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.