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Ashway: Paul Johnson Love Fest in full swing
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The Paul Johnson Love Fest continued last week.

Not even Tech’s 37-35 loss to Florida State in the ACC championship game could diminish the surge of popularity Johnson currently savors.

In fact, the way Tech played against FSU may have enhanced Johnson’s standing. Yes, Tech came up short against the defending national champions, winners of 29 straight games. But it took the Seminoles’ best effort of the season to beat the Yellow Jackets.

“I’m disappointed in the outcome of the game,” Johnson said, opening his remarks at the postgame press conference. “But I’m awfully proud of the football team. I thought they kept playing. Florida State is a very talented team, and, you know, it was the kind of game where you couldn’t make a mistake.

“I mean, you had to play really clean, and to their credit, they did that, and we missed a couple turns, and we couldn’t make it up. That’s pretty much it in a nutshell, I guess, the way the game went.”

The game featured a single turnover: Tech’s Justin Thomas threw an interception with three minutes left in the game.

Tech, which forced 27 turnovers during the regular season, forced none against FSU.

After Tech forced a punt on the Seminoles’ opening possession, the teams traded six straight touchdown drives. And there wasn’t a cheap drive in the bunch. Every single drive went between 71 and 75 yards. Unless you’re a defensive purist, this was ripping good stuff.

To this point, Tech had run 22 plays. Actually, they had run 21 and thrown a single pass. The Jackets had rolled up 221 yards and amassed 15:53 in possession time.

Johnson’s offense, that “Mickey Mouse scheme that will never work against quality defenses,” purred along like a Rolls Royce. Poetry in motion, as the old scribes used to say. You had to sit back and admire, appreciate, what you were watching, like fine art or wine.

“We knew it was going to be that kind of game,” FSU coach Jimbo Fisher said at his own postgame press conference. “We knew they got hot, so we just had to match.”

Then, suddenly, the machine hiccupped. With 5:40 left in the half, Tech had a chance to score again while running out the clock to take a touchdown advantage at halftime. After Thomas ran 19 yards for a first down, the Jackets ran three times for a single yard, and added a false start.

Suddenly, it was FSU going 75 yards (again) for the go-ahead touchdown right before the half.

“Nobody is perfect, so you can’t score every drive,” Thomas said after the game. “They made good plays on the defensive side and stopped us.”

Added Johnson, “I’m not sure anybody was really stopping anybody, if you want to know the truth. I mean, one stop was big. Both teams punted twice in the game, so there wasn’t a lot of stopping going on.”

Tech began the second half with another nice drive, 77 yards, to tie the score. The defense then slowed down the Seminoles, holding them to field goals on three successive drives.

“We tried to get some pressure from the outside,” said Johnson. “I think what we did is … we forced them to kick a couple of field goals instead of touchdowns.”

But Tech followed those with three straight scoreless drives, and that was the ballgame.

While the game was lost, respect was won.

“They played one heck of a football game,” said Fisher. “We knew going in this thing was going to be very tough. They were probably as hot as anybody, playing extremely well this time of year. And Paul and his group have done a tremendous job. They’ve got one heck of a team.”

And they’re still on a heck of a roll: 10-3 record. Ranked #12 nationally. En route to Miami to play Mississippi State in the Orange Bowl. And, perhaps most enjoyable of all, state champions.

No wonder Johnson was finally asked to remain on The Flats for a few more years. Early Saturday, athletics director Mike Bobinski announced that Johnson’s contract had been extended through the 2020 season.

“The extension reflects our confidence in the solid foundation Coach Johnson has built for the future success of our program … I look forward to Paul Johnson’s continued leadership of our football program, and am excited about the possibilities in the years ahead,” said the previously non-committal Bobinski.

Forgotten now is the 28-25 record covering the 2010-2013 seasons; the five straight losses to Georgia; the 2012 loss to Middle Tennessee State; and all the other frustrations of those four seasons.

Trumped by the Paul Johnson Love Fest.

Denton Ashway is a contributing columnist for The Times. His column appears weekly.

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