Georgia Tech scored in the first quarter Saturday at Duke. That’s a first for the Yellow Jackets this season. The touchdown staked them to their first lead since the Week 2 victory over South Florida, which had been their only lead of the season. The Jackets eventually fell hopelessly behind, but they kept competing.
That's all I've got for positives. Tech's lead didn't last until the end of the opening period. A mild rally still left the Jackets with a 41-23 defeat. After six games Tech owns one victory against five losses by an average margin of 19.4 points. The one close loss was to The Citadel of the FCS.
No one could reasonably expect the Jackets to be good this season. There is no recent precedent for making the radical switch from a triple-option, run-heavy offense to a modern spread. A more realistic hope was that, whatever their baseline, the Jackets would build on it.
That hasn’t happened. Each time Tech seems to move forward in one area it regresses in another. At least that’s my view. Tech coach Geoff Collins sees it differently. To the question of what’s improved for the Jackets from the first game until now, Collins answered: “Everything.”
“This is a monumental shift that (hasn’t) existed in the last 40 years of college football,” Collins said. “Everything has improved. I hate that the scoreboard doesn’t show it. I hate that the record book doesn’t show it. But every single phase of this football program has improved. There’s a lot of work ahead of us.”
Tech’s offense showed a spark in the second half against North Carolina last weekend. The defense let up against the Tar Heels. At Duke, both the offense and the defense were bad in the first half. Duke also blocked punt for a touchdown, thus negating the one unequivocally good aspect of Tech football, punter Pressley Harvin.
At least Tech got off to a good start against Duke. The opening score wasn’t seamless. It rarely is for Tech. But the Jackets kept at it until they finally had a first-quarter score.
Quarterback James Graham ran 32 yards to the end zone on third down, but a penalty for a crackback block wiped out the play. That put the Jackets in a third-and-12, which is a bad place for them. But Graham tossed a short pass to running back Jerry Howard, who zipped along the right sideline and lunged past the sticks.
Tech had another first down. Three plays later Graham tossed to Howard again on a similar play. Tech had a touchdown. The Jackets held Duke to a field goal on its next possession. But the next four Tech drives ended punt, punt, punt, turnover on downs and punt.
Meanwhile, Duke scored touchdowns on its next four possessions. Then came the blocked punt TD for a 38-7 lead with 3:10 until halftime. The Jackets answered with an 8-yard TD run for Graham before the half and a field goal on the first drive after. They were down 41-17 when they scored again, early in the fourth quarter.
The game featured incremental steps forward for Tech followed by major steps back. It’s been that way all season.
Throw out the opener at Clemson because of the talent disparity and the first live run for Tech’s offense. The next week Tech beat South Florida with a gritty defensive effort that included a late goal-line stand. I thought that game signaled that Tech could compete with defense, Collins’ specialty.
Instead, The Citadel gouged the Jackets with its option the next week. The Jackets’ defense was good at Temple, but the offense was bad. Tech’s offense came alive in the second half against North Carolina, only to see the defense regress again.
Then Duke’s offense put up 31 points in the first half. Tech’s offensive struggles are understandable. The defense doesn’t face the same circumstances. Now it seems to be going in the wrong direction.
I should add Graham to the list of positives for Tech on Saturday. He was 15-for-35 passing for 206 yards, which included two completions of 35-plus yards and the TD. For the first time this season Tech didn’t throw an interception against an FBS opponent. The Jackets also didn’t lose a fumble, also a first against teams on its level.
The problem is that Tech’s quarterbacks must operate behind a line that just isn’t built to pass. The Jackets haven’t run the ball well, either. That’s tough to do without a serious passing threat. The Jackets could do it when they outflanked foes with their funky option, but those days are over.
Collins decided to make the harsh transition to a new way of doing things with some players who don’t fit. That’s the right approach for the long term. The short-term results have been ugly, even considering the low expectations.
“I don’t want to discount how bad this hurts,” Collins said.
I don’t doubt Collins believes it when he says the Jackets have improved. He lauded his players’ work ethic, positive attitudes and dedication to the process of making drastic changes. Outsiders can’t always see those things.
“I’m excited for it to pay off on the scoreboard,” Collins said. “It’s coming, but we’ve just got to keep doing it the right way (and) not take any shortcuts.”
It’s going to take a while for the Jackets, who took another step back at Duke.