The engineers at Georgia Tech are familiar with the theory that played out in Monday night’s devastating loss – the butterfly effect.
For those unfamiliar, the butterfly effect is a thread of chaos theory on the interdependence of everything. The smallest fluctuations – the almost imperceptible flap of a butterfly’s wings – can create an avalanche. Each little thing leads to another little thing and so on and so on until the outcome is forever altered.
Nothing seems to encapsulate the butterfly effect like sports. The umpire’s judgment plays a role in the pitcher’s demeanor which leads to a two-out walk that tenses the shortstop’s muscles and triggers an error that ignites a ninth-inning rally in a game that seemed all but won had the umpire just called the pitch a strike.
On Monday night in Blacksburg, Va., a missed tackle turned a potential defining victory for the Yellow Jackets into a crushing 20-17 overtime loss to Virginia Tech.
“Well, that was a tough game to lose,” coach Paul Johnson said of an outcome that has determined the Coastal Division winner every season since the Atlantic Coast Conference adopted divisional play in 2005. “We had a great opportunity to win the game, no question.”
Georgia Tech’s painful defeat came down to – like every other close game – a series of little things that snowballed. All the months of preparation and the hours of sweat were invested for no redeemable return. All the hard-fought perceptions altered by two mistakes.
A defense that had stepped up short-handed and delivered one of its finest performances in years couldn’t make a tackle soon enough on fourth down with less than 10 seconds remaining that probably would have forced a low percentage desperation pass instead of an overtime-forcing field goal.
A senior quarterback who would have been hailed as a hero for executing a game-winning drive, including a scrambling fourth-down pass into triple coverage, left the field shattered after lobbing one of the most ill-advised passes for the game’s only turnover that snuffed any overtime scoring hope for the Jackets.
One minute Tevin Washington was the guy who Johnson said “made some great plays on the last drive in regulation” to the guy who “gift-wrapped it for them in overtime.” From hero to Reggie Ball all because the defense that had done so well couldn’t make one last stop.
It really should have been a heroic night for the Yellow Jackets, the kind of signature opening victory on the road at a traditional conference power that propels at team toward a championship. Washington and the defense would have shared the glory.
Trailing 14-10 and forced to get a touchdown, Washington came up clutch. He completed 4 of 5 passes on a seven-minute possession, including the 10-yard touchdown pass to Deon Hill with 44 seconds left.
But it was his conversion on fourth-and-6 from the Hokies’ 37 that was “the moment.” Scrambling right out of the collapsing pocket, Washington threw a perfect 19-yard strike to back former Jefferson County star B.J. Bostic just as three Virginia Tech defenders converged on him at the sideline.
After taking a 17-14 lead, all that was needed was another defensive stop. Al Groh’s defense – missing starting corner Louis Young (suspended), linebacker Daniel Drummond (suspended) and safety Fred Holton (injured) – seemed up to the task.
The Yellow Jackets had yielded only 50 yards in seven consecutive possessions after an early Virginia Tech TD. Despite bending on two previous Hokies drives, two hard open-field tackles forced a fourth down at the Jackets’ 47 with only 13 seconds left.
Virginia Tech not only needed a first down, but at least 20 yards to get in field goal kicker Cody Journell’s shaky range.
Logan Thomas threw a quick strike at the 41 to a slanting Corey Fuller. Jackets safety Isaiah Johnson and corner Jamal Golden were closing for the tackle at the 39, but they were a half step late and Fuller ended up dragging two other tacklers the final critical steps of a 23-yard gain to the 24 – just inside Journell’s career-long range of 42 yards.
If Johnson and Golden had been playing a little tighter instead of laying back to guard deeper passes, the Hokies would have been forced to use their last timeout with about eight seconds left to devise a desperation plan.
“We missed a couple tackles and they did what they had to do,” Johnson told reporters after the game.
Those butterfly steps led to the Washington mistake that never should have happened. On third-and-6 at the 10 on the opening overtime possession, Washington got flushed outside left and failed to see a wide-open David Sims on the other side of the end zone. Instead of throwing the ball out of bounds or taking the sack and giving Georgia Tech a field-goal chance, the off-balance Washington lobbed it up for grabs and Virginia Tech’s Kyle Fuller intercepted at the goal line.
“I was trying to throw the ball away,” Washington told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
For all intents and purposes, the chaos had led to the inevitable demise. Even a goal-line stand couldn’t avert the winning chip-shot field goal for the Hokies.
“It was like an Ali-Frazier fight,” Washington told reporters. “We were one play here and there from just busting the game open.”
The one play went the wrong way, as did everything that ensued.
Now all Georgia Tech can do is try to avoid the butterfly effect from extending through the season. Monday was a huge loss, but perhaps not destructive. Virginia Tech wasn’t overly impressive and has tough conference games against Florida State and Clemson.
The Jackets must break the thread of the chaos by not letting their final mistakes become the narrative instead of the effort and preparation that led up to it. Georgia Tech failed to re-engineer its destiny after a similar setback to the Hokies last season.
This time, they can’t let the initial writing on the wall become their reality.
“This game is gone as far as I’m worried about,” back Orwin Smith told the Atlanta paper. “I’m going to try to help the guys get over it because it was a big loss, but like coach (Johnson) said, we have to get over it because hopefully we have 13, 14 more games.”