A tale of two completely different halves came down to one play that will be remembered for a long time, and not in a good way.
In a contest that ended in the kind of nightmare Georgia Southern fans have seen before (read: NC State), the team lost a late lead to an ACC team on the road, this time in front of a large contingent of Eagle fans at Atlanta's Bobby Dodd Stadium.
The Eagles were nursing a 38-35 lead over in-state foes Georgia Tech when quarterback Favian Upshaw threw a shovel pass, or a lateral depending on who you ask, during an option run to the left side. The ball hit the ground and Tech appeared to recover, but it was ruled an incompletion by the referees.
Except it wasn’t. The men in stripes came back after a lengthy review and reversed the call – Tech ball. Georgia Tech, of course, marched down the field from there and scored to get the 42-38 win.
"It was a lot more exciting than it needed to be," Tech coach Paul Johnson said after the game.
For years the rumor was that Southern wanted to schedule games against Tech, but the Jackets refused. Maybe now we know why.
Southern Coach Willie Fritz didn't exactly question the call on the fumble in his post-game comments, but he didn't give zebras a ringing endorsement either.
"It happened right in front of me," he said. "The thing that's tough about some of those reviewable plays, and I'm not trying to second-guess the officials, sometimes those are pretty tough. It's happened to us a couple times now where the whistle is blown and play continues. It seemed that way to me. It was on the pitch and someone came into meet him. I thought it was a forward pass, but they've got all the replay technology. Hopefully they got it right."
While the shovel pass may be the only part remembered in a couple of decades, the game outside of it was a compelling case of role-reversal. Southern had no answer for anything Tech did in the first half and got mauled on the line of scrimmage. Tech scored touchdowns on five straight possessions and went into the half 35-10.
Tech outgained Southern 385 yards to 130 yards in the first half, with quarterback Justin Thomas recording 149 yards passing, 108 rushing yards and playing a role in four touchdowns.
If Georgia Southern’s defense benefited from seeing the option so much over the last four years, it didn’t show early on. Tech's line dominated on both sides of the ball. Their offense's bad plays went for five or six yards. Their good ones, well, let's try not to think about those.
It looked bad. The Jackets ran the opening play from scrimmage 63 yards into the Southern red zone. Two more plays made it 7-0, and what sounded like a neutral field in pre-game turned all Tech just like that. The Jackets took off from there, leading 14-7 at the end of the first quarter and 35-10 at the half. I hate to say it, but it looked like a P5 team playing a team transitioning from FCS to FBS.
But as the third quarter started, with some fans surely wondering how long it would be before they returned to the tailgate parties, the Eagles mounted a shocking comeback, scoring four of their own consecutive touchdowns to take the lead 38-35. Fritz let loose with a more pass-oriented look and threw in some no-huddle with great success. Wide receiver Kentrellis Showers caught a 43-yard pass to set up one score, and BJ Johnson caught a 68-yard touchdown pass on his only catch of the day.
One was left to wonder if the teams secretly switched jerseys during the break. Both Southern quarterback Kevin Ellison and the man who subbed in for him throughout the day (Upshaw) slashed through the Yellow Jacket defense on drive after drive. It was 35-10, then 35-17, 35-24, 35-30 and 35-38. The Eagles went for a two-point conversion after getting to the 30-point mark. It was no good, but a successful two-pointer on the next touchdown evened it out.
At one point in the third quarter, Georgia Southern had 228 second half yards. Tech had 21. This makes the Jackets' game-winning drive all that much more remarkable: it was the team's only score of the entire second half.
As Upshaw led the Eagles downfield late in the fourth nursing that three-point lead, every Southern fan must have been thinking, "just avoid a disaster." When Upshaw's shovel pass was ruled an incompletion and then overturned (and remember, there is supposed to be indisputable evidence to do so), I thought to myself, "I've seen this movie before."
For what it's worth, Jamal Golden, the man who recovered the fumble for Tech, said afterward he felt like it was a lateral.
Added Johnson, showing a gift for understatement, "We felt like we had a chance when we got the ball back with four minutes to go."
The game was there for Georgia Southern to win it, for sure. Things definitely look bright for the Eagles under coach Fritz and it must be only a matter of time before the team takes down another P5 member. Even the most pessimistic Southern fan has to like the team's chances in conference play, starting next week in the Gulf Coast against South Alabama.
"It doesn't count as a win, of course, but there were a lot of teachable moments and things we learned in the second half," Fritz said.
Eagle Extras: Georgia Southern fans accounted for maybe 30 percent of the announced crowd of 53,173. It got very loud when the Eagles scored, and the Tech PA system resorted to blasting music to drown out the crowd when Southern got going during the comeback. Also: On offense, Southern now uses those picture board things to help call plays. One of the images? A Florida Gator logo.