One challenge with covering football is that the pace of the season is so quick that you invariably have leftover material that is interesting but that you just don’t have time to publish. Also, plans change and stories you think you might write can’t get executed.
The day after Lance Austin brought down Bobby Dodd Stadium with his 78-yard return of a blocked field goal for the game-winning touchdown against Florida State, I saw this photo that my talented colleague Hyosub Shin took of Austin’s touchdown. What is great about it to me is that it captures so many Tech players and coaches sharing the same excitement and anticipation that fans felt watching this moment unfold.
My idea was to try to get as many (ideally all) of the people pictured to explain what they were thinking at that moment. Alas, for various reasons, I wasn’t able to pull it off, and then it became less timely and relevant as the season went on. (I had the thought that it might make for a good story during the run-up to Tech’s bowl game.)
But, it’s too good to let go to waste, and I imagine many of you will probably never tire of reading about this play. The post only actually includes interviews with three people in the picture, but I spoke with two other people indirectly or directly tied in to the play.
Defensive line coach Mike Pelton (blue pullover on the far left of the image)
“A break finally went our way. It was like, Hey, that was good instincts on that kid but every coach on that sideline was probably telling him to get away from that ball. And he picked it up, and when he picked it up, I saw most of their people on the other side. It was like, Hey, man, this is one chance for them to score. A break just went our way. You’ve got to have kids that have instincts. His instinct was to pick it up. You saw it. Once he picked it up, the guy’s instincts was to get blocks. It just turned into a really really good things for us.”
Former Tech cornerback D.J. White (White’s ankle injury kept him out of the game, the only game he missed due to injury in his entire career. Had he not been injured, he would have been in Austin’s spot for the kick.)
“I would just say that Lance is a guy, he goes out there and he works hard every day. He’s a football player. You can tell. He’s a guy that’s always ready for his moment. He’s a guy that’s going to go out there and give you what he’s got.”
Would you have scored?
“I would like to think so. But everything happens for a reason. Maybe me not being there set that moment up the way it needed to be set up.”
Would you have known to pick it up?
“At that point in the game, I’m pretty sure I would have tried to make a play. You’ve got nothing left to lose.”
Tech quarterback Justin Thomas (far right of the image)
“I knew we had to block it. If we don’t block it, that kicker’s pretty much money from anywhere he’s at. Lance made a heads-up play to pick the ball up – it didn’t matter if we don’t score or not, we were going to overtime. So, last-second play, and he just made a great effort I’m not sure who blocked the kick, but that’s great, too. He got his hands up there. It’s just a great way to end the game.”
On watching the actual return:
“I knew he was going to score. Just, I had a feeling. He had the lead blockers and he’s a speedy guy and he had to make one person miss, the kicker. He did it, and a lot of emotions going through that time and period.”
FSU kicker Roberto Aguayo
“I think it was a little lower than I wanted to, but I wanted to give it a chance. I didn’t want it to be high and then leave it short. I wanted to give it a chance. I hadn’t had a kick blocked in my career. That wasn’t running through my head. I think it was just unfortunate. They got a couple hands up there and it was unfortunate. It’s a learning experience. You have to move forward. For all of us, I guess.”
(By happy coincidence, FSU is in town again for Thursday’s Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, which I am helping cover. I wrote a story for the paper and myajc about how that loss impacted the Seminoles. Aguayo was quite gracious going over the kick.)
FSU offensive lineman Roderick Johnson (part of the field-goal team)
“All I remember is Roberto kicked the ball, it got lbocked and I just looked up and the guy was running down the sideline for six.”
Tech defensive end Rod Rook-Chungong (on the line next to Pat Gamble, who made the block of Roberto Aguayo’s kick)
“It’s wild. Pat made a play. I just remember shoot, just getting in my gap. On my side, I couldn’t really get too much penetration, so I just tried to take one, two steps and just jump as high as possible. Next thing I know, I hear a block and then actually the ball tipped my fingers, too, and it rolled back to Lance and he made the pay and took it to the house.”
“We were jumping (in celebration) and then we looked back and then saw it as like, O.K., alright, let’s get to our bench (to block for Austin). Because (special teams coordinator) coach Ray (Rychleski) does a great job of bringing up that scenario of somebody getting a block and we go to our bench and start blocking.”
“Actually, I tried to get a block, I think on No. 4, I think his name was (Giorgio) Newberry. I guess he saw me at the last second, so he moved away, so I think I slowed him down a little bit. But I tried to block him. I didn’t really need to block because Lance is so (darn) fast around the corner.”
(I’d heard this explanation a few times, that if a kick is blocked, the returner’s best chance is to go down the sideline – the bench – and hence teammates are instructed to head that way to block. I was curious, though, are players automatically supposed to go to Tech’s side of the field?)
“Shoot. Honestly, I want to say our bench. I really don’t know. He just says go to the bench. It’s just a scenario we always work on.”
On if he was thinking Tech was going to lose again on a last-second field goal (Tech lost the prior Saturday to Pittsburgh on another 56-yard field goal):
“I wasn’t actually thinking like that because that’s a far-kicked ball. I know that’s a great kicker, I know he’s like 90 percent in his career and stuff like that. I think we have a 50/50 chance because I know we have great people like Pat (Gamble) and Adam (Gotsis) getting pressure on the edge and up the middle. I was pretty confident, I feel.”
Center Freddie Burden (partially obscured, next to Thomas):
At first, I was watching Chris (Milton) and he was celebrating and I was like, We blocked the kick! We blocked the kick! Then I realized that the ball’s live, so I saw Lance turning the corner and I’m like, Go, go, go! We’re like, Go go go! Once he got toward the end zone, I saw Justin (Thomas) and Errin (Joe) just sprinting and I just followed them. I knew it was about to be a big celebration then. It was amazing, a crazy moment.”
My thanks to all of you for reading throughout 2015. See you in the new year.