In 2017 Georgia Tech tailed off against Tennessee, melted down at Miami and vanished at Virginia. That’s three losses after double-digit leads in the second half.
But that was last year. The Yellow Jackets said this season would be different. They would take leads and keep them. They would find a way to finish.
And yet Tech blew it against South Florida on Saturday. Facing their first real test of the season, the Jackets gave back a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter and lost by 11.
That should be hard to do. The Jackets did it regularly in 2017. They did it again in their first 2018 game against an FBS foe.
“It kind of happened today,” Tech quarterback TaQuon Marshall said. “We just had a hiccup with the fumble. If we don’t have the fumble, we go down and score and we will be having a totally different conversation right now.”
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Maybe, but it wasn’t just about A-back Qua Searcy’s fumble. Tech led 38-35 when he lost a fumble at USF’s 12-yard line, and the Bulls turned that turnover into a go-ahead touchdown. The Jackets couldn’t respond.
But this was a rerun of the same plot we’ve seen from the Jackets before. The details just change a bit from episode to episode. If it wasn’t that fumble, it would probably be some other foul-up.
This wasn’t supposed to happen anymore. Tech coach Paul Johnson hired a new defensive coordinator, Nate Woody, and shuffled staff responsibilities for Tech’s problematic special teams. The result Saturday: Tech’s defense faded in the second half, and the special teams are still a mess.
Terrence Horne Jr., USF’s speedy freshman, ran back consecutive kickoffs for touchdowns, for 98 and 97 yards, in the first half. Johnson said Tech’s coverage erred in the same way both times, with players responsible for containing Horne getting bunched up with those supposed to force him.
“You think we coach them to get on the same level?” Johnson said. “I can’t tell you what happened.”
Tech’s defense gave up four touchdowns on five USF drives in the second half, three of them longer than 70 yards. Woody’s group is supposed to be disruptive. USF QB Blake Barrett was unhurried on USF’s go-ahead touchdown drive, which covered 88 yards in 10 plays.
“It was about like the others, wasn’t it?” Johnson said. “We could never get close to stopping them.”
Horne’s back-to-back kickoff touchdowns were obviously problematic (a desperation tackle saved what likely would have been a TD on Horne’s first return). The defense’s goal-line stand in the first half was erased by its inability to stop the Bulls after halftime.
But Johnson’s offense had a chance to make all of that not matter. After USF’s go-ahead touchdown, the Jackets got the ball with 5:08 left and needing 75 yards for a TD and the lead. Searcy gained 17 yards on the first play.
This looked like a time for one of those methodical Tech TD drives. Five yards here, six yards there and always the chance of breaking a big one. Eat the clock, score the TD and win the game.
Instead, Tech started passing. Marshall’s first-down attempt fell incomplete. A holding call erased an 11-yard completion on second down and pushed Tech back.
I couldn’t finish a question about Johnson’s strategy on that drive before he started griping about the penalty.
“They slapped us with a holding penalty, didn’t they?” Johnson said. “Right after we hit a first down on a pass.”
(A replay showed Tech USF end Juwaun Brown fall to the ground as Tech guard Will Bryan grabbed at him, but it was hard to tell Bryan pulled him down.)
On the replay of that second down, Tech tried to pass again. The Bulls pressured Marshall and forced him to throw the ball away. That made it third-and-20, and the Jackets pretty much had to pass, which is never a good situation for them.
The Bulls mobbed Marshall again soon after he dropped back, hit his arm as he passed, and sent the ball wobbling high in the air. Linebacker Nico Sawtelle caught it. The Bulls then went 18 yards in five plays, converting a fourth-and-one before Barnett rumbled in from five yards to essentially end the game.
Johnson had Marshall in the game throwing the ball on a crucial drive. He had Marshall’s backup, redshirt freshman Tobias Oliver, on the sideline after he looked great running for 97 yards on 18 carries and three TDs.
Marshall went out with an injury on the third play of the second half, and Oliver carried five consecutive times with a five-yard TD to finish. Oliver muscled into the end zone for his second TD. On the next drive the Bulls stopped him on third down at their 1-yard line, the Jackets naturally went for it, and Oliver shuffled to his right and ran in for the score and the 38-28 lead.
Marshall re-entered the game during the drive that ended with Searcy’s fumble. Tech had a third-and-9 at the time. Marshall converted it with a 21-yard pass to Clinton Lynch.
Johnson said he didn’t consider going back to Oliver. A questioner noted that Oliver seemed to have a rhythm.
“Well, that’s your opinion,” Johnson said. “If you get to be the coach next year, put him in.”
Maybe that also will be the year that Johnson’s Jackets finally figure out how to hold a big second-half lead.