Paul Johnson: 'I play to win.'

BY foxsports • November 9, 2009

Not Paul Johnson.

The Georgia Tech coach doesn't mind putting it all on the line, even at the risk of costing his team a shot at the Atlantic Coast Conference championship.

"If you tell the kids 'play to win,"' Johnson said Sunday, "then you have to play to win."

The Yellow Jackets (9-1, 6-1 ACC) have been doing just that. They climbed to No. 7 in The Associated Press rankings and BCS standings after Johnson's gutsy call on fourth down led to a 30-27 overtime victory against Wake Forest.

While Georgia Tech probably has too many teams to climb for a realistic shot at playing for the national championship, a nifty consolation prize possibly awaits. The Jackets can clinch the Coastal Division title with a win next weekend at Duke; a victory in the Dec. 5 ACC championship game at Tampa would send them to the Orange Bowl at the very least.

All those scenarios were in jeopardy when Georgia Tech faced fourth down at the Wake Forest 5, trailing 27-24 in overtime Saturday. The first-down marker was only a half-yard away, but the safe thing to do would have been to settle for a 22-yard field goal and extend the game to another round of possessions.

The Yellow Jackets already had failed four times on fourth down, even more reason for Johnson to take what was little more than an extra point.

But he never really considered it. After attempting to draw Wake Forest offsides and getting a look at their defensive alignment, he called timeout.

Kicker Scott Blair stayed on the sideline. Back out went the offense.

Quarterback Josh Nesbitt took the snap, lowered his head and easily picked up the first down with a 2-yard gain. On the very next play, Nesbitt went in standing for a 3-yard touchdown run that ended the game.

"Let's say we kick the field goal," Johnson said. "There's still a 50-50 chance to lose. Plus, now you're going first (on offense in the second OT). For me, that was an easy decision. You've got to get a half-yard. If you get a half-yard, you've got a chance to win the game. I thought our chances to get a half-yard were better than 50-50."

It's not in Johnson's nature to second-guess himself, and he wasn't about to start now. Even on the drive home, it never occurred to him that his decision might have cost the Yellow Jackets dearly.

"I never thought anything more about it. For me, it was the easy way to go," he said. "I wasn't worried. If it didn't work, we wouldn't lost the game and moved on to the next one."

Johnson's players appreciate his faith - and his bravado.

"He believes in us," star running back Jonathan Dwyer said. "Who doesn't want to play for a coach like that, who believes in 20- and 21-year-old kids? It makes us go out there and play harder for him and harder for each other."

Johnson has unwavering confidence in his spread option offense, which accounted for 412 yards rushing against Wake Forest. But the Yellow Jackets were 0-for-4 on fourth-down plays in regulation, including one in which Nesbitt dropped the snap and failed to pick up a mere yard.

He ran a similar play in overtime. This time, he didn't drop the ball.

"It wasn't a big deal," Johnson said. "I saw how they lined up. I didn't see much how they could stop him. He thought he could get it and I felt he could get it, too."

The coach was asked how many of his counterparts would make the same decision.

"A lot of it depends on what you're doing," Johnson said. "If you're in the shotgun and snapping the ball 6 yards deep to the quarterback, you might not go for it. But I'm operating with the ball right on the line. I've got to get a half-yard.

"The easy thing to do would be to kick it," he went on. "Then all the onus is on the kids. If the kicker misses, you can blame the kicker. If you get beat in the second overtime, you can blame the kids. That's the easiest thing to do."

And Johnson never likes taking the easy way out.