Greg Cote

Greg Cote: Not a classic, but an Orange Bowl win to savor for Georgia Tech

Georgia Tech runs out onto the field for the start of the game. Mississippi State vs Georgia Tech at the 2014 Orange Bowl Game at Sun Life Stadium on Wednesday, December 31, 2014.
Georgia Tech runs out onto the field for the start of the game. Mississippi State vs Georgia Tech at the 2014 Orange Bowl Game at Sun Life Stadium on Wednesday, December 31, 2014. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

It was in a Saturday Night Live skit in 2000 that actor Christopher Walken, playing a 1970s music producer, made a national catch-phrase of “more cowbell!” when he beseeched more clanging from the rock musician played by Will Ferrell.

That’s what we needed on New Year’s Eve at Dolphins stadium in the 81st Orange Bowl game.

More cowbell.

That would have been the sound of a better bowl game.

See, Mississippi State fans ring cowbells to celebrate big plays, a long-standing school tradition of murky origin. Had we heard more of them Wednesday night, it would have suggested an outcome a bit more compelling than the 49-34 rout by Georgia Tech.

Actually, I suppose there was a fair amount of cause for cowbell, given the teams’ combined 83 points and OB-record 1,182 total offensive yards. The on-field fireworks preceding the holiday variety blooming at midnight to welcome 2015 provided some of the trappings of an exciting game, except that Georgia Tech winning hardly ever seemed in doubt.

More cowbell? “More defense!” would have been a more appropriate demand.

This was the 81st edition of the South Florida institution that bloomed in 1934 as a publicity tool and tourist attraction to help Miami haul itself up out of the Great Depression. Along the way the Orange Bowl has crowned the national champion 20 times in becoming an indispensable piece of college football history.

Let’s just say Mississippi State did not do its part to help make this an OB to remember. Georgia Tech’s dominating Yellow Jackets left the Bulldogs little say in the matter. Tech’s vaunted triple-option ground attack steamrolled the young men from Starkville, rushing for 452 yards.

At midnight, red fireworks burst overhead above the stadium as the Yellow Jackets celebrating on the field playfully tossed oranges at each other.

Like any bowl game outside of the College Football Playoff semifinals in the new era, this year’s Orange was a glorified consolation for both No.8-ranked Mississippi State, which fell out of Final Four consideration after tailing off late in the season, and No. 10 Georgia Tech, which never quite climbed that high. But that doesn’t mean there weren’t stakes worth savoring for both teams.

The Bulldogs were seeking but failed to achieve the proper punctuation to a memorable season that saw Mississippi State ranked No.1 in the nation — for the first time in school history — at 9-0. For the Yellow Jackets, the victory newly completed almost certainly will send the school into the offseason with its first final top-10 poll ranking since 1998.

Miami and the OB will host one of the sport’s playoff semifinal games next year, a marquee event.

Wednesday couldn’t live up, but we should hardly complain. The previous run of four Orange Bowl games in a row had been compelling, and for various reasons.

A year ago, Clemson beat Ohio State 40-35 in a last-minute thriller.

Two years ago Alabama clubbed Notre Dame for the national championship.

Three years ago a big win by Florida State ensured a big, partisan sellout.

Four years ago Miami’s homegrown Geno Smith led West Virginia’s OB-record 70-point avalanche.

Anyway, South Florida football fans were hardly in a position to bemoan this 81st matchup, considering the hometown Miami Hurricanes are a decade-plus removed from the national stage and trying to find a way back to an Orange-sized bowl.

“If watching another team play in your home stadium on New Year’s Eve doesn’t motivate you, I don’t know what does,” as UM quarterback Brad Kaaya wrote on Twitter before the game.

Wednesday’s game was a tough sell largely because of the New Year’s Eve date, and played to a mostly empty upper deck and a below-capacity crowd of 58,211. The game itself only seemed compelling, like a potential classic, briefly, when Mississippi State scored on a 42-yard Hail Mary pass on the last play of the first half to pull within 21-20.

It was so exciting right then that stadium workers began rolling a giant halftime stage onto the field before the extra point had been kicked.

“Please clear the field!” intoned the referee over the PA system.

There was a novelty to this matchup, with Mississippi State in only its third Orange Bowl ever and first since 1940. Tech was in its seventh OB but hadn’t left a winner since 1951.

There just wasn’t much defense to augment the novelty, especially from Mississippi State.

Georgia Tech’s stock-in-trade is its throwback triple-option running game, which UM Hurricanes fans know well (and often too well) from playing the ACC-rival Yellow Jackets each year.

“We’ve done the thing for, what, 29 years?” Tech coach Paul Johnson said in the buildup to the game.

He makes it seem so simple (“We have about six, seven base plays we run”), but expert execution trumps difficulty or surprise. The Bulldogs knew it was coming. They still couldn’t stop it.

“It’s not what I know, it’s what the players know,” Johnson said. “You can turn a 4.4 guy [in speed] into a 4.8 guy real fast if he doesn’t know the system.”

Tech quarterback and game MVP Justin Thomas and fabulously named running back Synjyn Days know the system, evidently. They combined for six rushing touchdowns and almost 292 yards of that ground avalanche that buried Mississippi State.

Georgia Tech’s coach, Johnson, summed up the offensive nature of the game nicely in saying, “If we scored every time we knew we couldn’t lose.”

They came close enough.

That’s why the Yellow Jackets and their fans were the ones happy in the new year as the fireworks bloomed overhead.

Related stories from Miami Herald