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Tech starts strong, ends weak

    ATLANTA — Once again, Georgia Tech found a way to start the season strong, then come to a disappointing finish.
    After earning their ninth win against Duke in November, the Yellow Jackets appeared headed for a big year. They locked up a chance at the Atlantic Coast Conference title for a spot in the Orange Bowl and a possible a 10-win season, a mark reached only seven times in school history.
    But Tech (9-5) dropped its last three games. The Yellow Jackets lost to bitter rival Georgia, Wake Forest in the ACC championship, then 38-35 to No. 12 West Virginia in the Gator Bowl on Monday.
    Oddly, each loss was by a field goal.
    ‘‘That’s been our story, this season with all these losses at the end,’’ Georgia Tech senior linebacker KaMichael Hall said. ‘‘You’ve got to learn how to finish. It’s all about finishing. If you can’t finish a game, you’re not going to win a game, that’s what it’s all about.’’
    Most of the Yellow Jackets struggles were from an inconsistent offense. They scored at least 30 points in seven out of their nine wins, but had no offensive production in each loss — except one — scoring no more than 10 points.
    Georgia Tech managed one touchdown and four field goals in the two losses before the bowl game. Senior quarterback Reggie Ball usually took most of the blame for his team’s inconsistent play and inability to get All-American wideout Calvin Johnson the football more.
    It didn’t look any better when Ball was declared ineligible for the Gator Bowl, leaving sophomore Taylor Bennett — who had one previous start — to replace him. But Bennett connected on 19-of-29 passes for 326 yards and three touchdowns.
    However, the Yellow Jackets surrendered an 18-point lead and the Mountaineers didn’t even have leader rusher Steve Slaton. Georgia Tech kicker Travis Bell tried to tie the game with a 54-yard field goal with 5 minutes left, but his attempt fell well short.
    ‘‘It was exciting that we were able to score 35 points on the No. 12 team in the nation,’’ Bennett said. ‘‘We played hard and gave it everything we had, we just fell short.’’
    Yellow Jackets coach Chan Gailey hopes the late-season slump will help his team learn for the future.
    ‘‘We couldn’t execute and take it into the end zone,’’ he said. ‘‘Hopefully, as we mature as a football team and get better, we’ll finish those games and win them.’’
    Now, Gailey has to think about whether Johnson might return or enter himself for the upcoming NFL draft. The 6-5, 235-pounder was one of Georgia Tech’s few bright spots, catching passes for 186 yards and two touchdowns against West Virginia.
    Johnson, who won the Biletnikoff Award as the nation’s top receiver and was named ACC player of the year, said he is still undecided about jumping to the next level.
    ‘‘The deadline is coming up pretty soon,’’ he said. ‘‘I’ll have to sit down and decide it pretty soon ... I’m the one who has to live with the decision but my family will have some input in it.
    Added Johnson: ‘‘It hurts to drop three games in a row. This was our last game, so you’ve got to look forward to next year.’’
    Of course, it would be a huge loss if Johnson doesn’t return. If he can’t, at least the Yellow Jackets will have running back Tashard Choice, who led the ACC in rushing.
    But Bennett knows having Johnson would make next season a whole lot easier.
    ‘‘It’s things like that you can count on him to make the plays in those tough situations. So it’s definitely a plus to have him on the field.’’

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