I have been lucky enough to see some pretty amazing football games in my time at Tech. Perhaps the two most memorable ones that I have seen in person occurred during homecoming, and they both resulted in rushing the field. I was a freshman during the upset of undefeated No. 6 Clemson in 2011, and now as a fifth-year senior, I got to experience the Miracle on Techwood Drive from the front row of SWARM.
With these two incredible homecoming games in the past few years, it’s easy to forget another one that was perhaps more important: the 2013 victory over the Pittsburgh Panthers. In fact, it is not a stretch to say that DeAndre Smelter’s deep fourth quarter catch in that game saved head coach Paul Johnson’s career here and enabled the magisterial 2014 campaign to happen.
Since it was a few years ago, here is the situation the Jackets faced heading in to the game. Their record sat at 5-3, but since the team played two FCS schools that season they would need seven wins to become bowl eligible. With near-guaranteed losses to Clemson and Georgia still to be played, this game was a must-win for the Jackets in order to keep the bowl streak alive. Moreover, that offense for that season was the worst-performing Tech offense under Johnson, which combined with a middling 7-7 finish in 2012 meant that Johnson was on the hot seat. An inefficient offense with no bowl appearance and another season of losses to all four of our rivals would spell doom for Johnson’s tenure with the Jackets.
The team faced a 3rd and 17 at midfield late in the fourth quarter up 14-10, and there were two possibilities for the game to follow from here. Either the Jackets pick up the first down and continue the drive (and burn some more time off of the clock), or they do not, giving the Panthers another chance to take the lead. Thankfully for Tech, the first option happened. Quarterback Vad Lee dropped back and heaved the ball 42 yards downfield to wide receiver Smelter. Smelter, with two Pitt defenders right next to him ready to make a play, sprang into the air and reached over both of them to make a sensational catch. The Jackets scored on that drive and won the game by a final score of 21-10. The team finished the regular season with a 7-5 record and earned a berth in the Music City Bowl.
But what if Smelter did not come down with that ball? What if the game followed that second path? It is easy to envision either one of those two defenders getting a hand on the ball, knocking it away and forcing the Jackets to punt. From there, the defense still could have made the stop and won the game, but they could have also given up the touchdown and lost. Then how does the rest of 2013 and beyond play out? The team would still lose to Clemson and Georgia, and not make a Bowl at 6-6. Johnson would be fired, as fans (and more importantly, the Athletic Association) would feel that his option offense was ineffective. We would find a new coach and spend a few years with a mediocre record because Johnson’s offensive recruits would struggle to adapt to a more traditional scheme.
Instead, Smelter made the catch and saved the program from that fate. His catch gave management no reason to fire Paul Johnson, which set the team up for its unbelievable 2014 season. (In case you forgot, we beat all four of our rivals in the same year for the first time ever, shocked Georgia for the first time since 2008, won the ACC Coastal division, nearly beat undefeated Florida State in the ACC Championship game, and upset former No. 1 Mississippi State in the Orange Bowl.) Although the game was not as flashy as Clemson 2011 or FSU 2015 and did not result in mayhem on Grant Field, the Jackets’ 2013 homecoming victory over Pitt is still worthy of celebration.