The unexpected jolt of electricity energized Georgia Tech supporters feeling let down Saturday by the low-watt offense. It wasn’t clear if the Yellow Jackets would ever score when they suddenly did on James Graham 51-yard touchdown pass to Ahmarean Brown in the second quarter.
Tech’s offense went back into hibernation, but a blocked punt set up a field goal in the third quarter that again got Tech within a score of Pittsburgh.
The Jackets forced another punt, got the ball back and put together just their second good drive of the day. They got 68 of the 69 yards they needed to tie the score. Pitt’s Kylan Johnson knocked the ball from Tech quarterback Lucas Johnson as he tried reaching it over the goal line. Pitt’s Cam Bright scooped it up and returned the ball all the way to Tech’s 21-yard line.
The Jackets held Pitt to a field goal, but that 10-point lead held up. The Jackets got the ball three more times and couldn’t gain a first down. That’s how it went all day for the Jackets. They might have won with even a so-so offensive showing, which is what makes this 20-10 loss as disappointing as the upset victory at Miami was stirring.
First-year Tech coach Geoff Collins has a tough team. You saw that when the Jackets won as an 18 1/2-point underdog at Miami a week after a poor showing at Duke. Tech’s toughness was evident when it stayed in the game against Pitt after losing the fumble at the goal line.
“Regardless of circumstances, just put the ball down and let’s play,” Collins said.
That attitude should serve the Jackets (2-6) well when they get better. Right now, their offense is holding them back.
Tech’s defense sagged after good showings against South Florida and Temple, but it’s better now. The Jackets stiffened when Miami got into scoring position produced three takeaways against Pitt. Tech’s special teams scored a TD on a fake punt at Miami and blocked the punt against Pitt.
But Collins still hasn’t figured out how to create a balanced, consistent offense from the skeleton of the triple-option that Tech left behind.
A week after grinding out yards against Miami, Tech managed Graham’s long TD pass to Brown and their one good offensive drive ended with the fumble. The Jackets gained one yard after the blocked punt set them up at Pitt’s 13-yard line. They threw an interception after the defense held Pitt to a missed field-goal attempt to keep the margin 20-10 in the fourth quarter.
The Jackets have a chance to score when they keep the down-and-distance manageable. Then they can gain just enough rushing yards to move the chains. Mix in some timely passes and QB scrambles, and the Jackets occasionally can piece together scoring drives.
That’s the formula they used to win at Miami, which has the ACC’s No. 2 scoring defense (a fake punt for a touchdown also helped). Tech couldn’t repeat the recipe against Pitt, which has the ACC’s No. 4 scoring defense. The Jackets frequently got behind schedule with down-and-distance and struggled to catch up because they can’t pass consistently.
It’s been that way all season. Over the summer much of the curiosity about Tech centered on whether one of its triple-option QBs can throw. It’s turned out the bigger issue is fashioning a line that can keep the throwers upright.
Maybe it would look better if injuries hadn’t stricken the line. That hurt the depth of a thin group. But inexperience likelier is a bigger culprit than injuries. Even the linemen who played a lot of games this season had to adjust to blocking pass rushers and recognizing where defenders are coming from.
Collins benched Graham after halftime. The coach said the he missed too many throws. Graham agreed that he had a “tough” first half and said scrambling wasn’t an issue.
“I’m more comfortable throwing on the run,” Graham said. “I could have made a few more throws than I did.”
Graham’s TD pass showed what Tech’s offense can do when enough things go right. A blocker slowed down a blitzing defender just enough to prevent him from getting to Graham. Graham had to move to his right before throwing but that’s better than the drop-and-duck that’s usually necessary.
The touchdown pass was a beautiful throw. At Miami, Graham put nice touch on a 35-yard TD pass to Brown that tied the score. But accurate throws are just one part of passing the ball. Tech has too much trouble with the most important aspect, protecting the passer, and that’s a reason why their offense misfired so often against Pitt.
Tech’s first three drives ended with punts (coincidentally, they all ended at Tech’s 31-yard line). One of those drives began at Tech’s 29-yard line courtesy of an interception by safety Junayeh Thomas. The Jackets wouldn’t make it past midfield until another interception, this one by safety Tariq Carpenter, put them at Pittsburgh’s 17-yard line.
That play got a rise out of Tech’s supporters. They grumbled when the next two plays, both runs, totaled three yards. Did they not see Tech complete one of its first six passes for three yards? On third down Graham faked a handoff before darting 12 yards for a first down.
Finally, Tech’s offense had something going. Then Graham, under pressure, threw incomplete on first down. The Jackets were behind schedule again. Two runs by Jordan Mason didn’t get the necessary yardage before Tech missed a 22-yard field goal attempt to begin the second quarter.
Tech’s defense gave the Jackets so many chances to win. Its offense couldn’t take advantage. That’s still the story of its season.
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