When the Bulls threatened to score another TD, Jackets defensive tackle T.K. Chimedza forced a fumble at the goal line and recovered it.
“A character win,” Collins said. “A team that plays together and just battles all the way to the end.”
It was a thrilling victory for the Jackets, but strange to see defense as the difference. That hadn’t happened since 2015, when the Jackets held No. 9 Florida State to one touchdown during a 22-16 victory here. Johnson’s defenses had good days, but usually that was a sidebar to another great day for the triple option.
These Jackets can’t rely on offense to be their best defense. The clock-sapping, ultra-efficient drives that once were a given now are a luxury. The occasional big passing plays that Johnson’s teams delivered aren’t happening now.
But the Jackets can make defense a central part of their personality with Collins. He ran elite units for Mississippi State and Florida. Good defense was a staple for Temple when Collins was head coach, and he brought coordinator Andrew Thacker to Tech with him.
Tech used to play a passive style of defense. The idea was to do just enough to get the ball back to its unique offense, which did the rest.
Now the Jackets are going after opponents. The aim is to create turnovers and negative plays. That’s what they did against the Bulls.
“I definitely love this new defense,” Chimedza said. “It gives everybody an opportunity to attack and make plays.”
Chimedza made the biggest play, but the Jackets ended up punting after his takeaway. The Bulls ran six plays and made it to their own 21 yard-line before punting back to Tech. The Jackets ran out the clock with the help of USF penalties.
The Jackets held on to win after they couldn’t do it at USF last season. They had a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter of that game and lost by 11. Tech collapsed because it couldn’t keep QB Blake Barnett in check, lost a fumble in the red zone and inexplicably tried to pass while still holding the lead.
In the rematch, Tech had an 11-point lead in the final period. The advantage was four points after South Florida turned an interception into a short-field TD early in the quarter. Tech ended up winning because they didn’t let South Florida in the end zone.
The Bulls got as close as they could. Two plays after Tech lost a fumble near midfield, a busted coverage left tight end Mitchell Wilcox alone down the right sideline. Barnett passed to Wilcox cut back and looked like he was going to score. But Tech safety Tariq Carpenter chased him down at the 1-yard line.
A touchdown might have finished the Jackets. Tech’s three drives of the second half ended punt, interception and fumble.
“Our plan was to bow up and do anything to keep them out of the end zone,” Chimedza said.
South Florida committed a false-start penalty on first down. (Poorly timed flags were a theme for the Bulls.) The replay of that down resulted in a rush for no gain by Jordan Cronkrite. Quarterback Jordan McCloud, who had replaced Barnett, got back to the 1-yard line on second down.
Barnett re-entered the game for third down but handed off to Cronkrite. He met immediate resistance from Tech’s defensive front. Cronkrite tried to reach the ball across the goal line, but Chimedza poked it from his grasp.
“It was one of those miracle plays,” Chimedza aid.
It’s looked as if Cronkrite was losing the ball before Chimedza touched it. Perhaps the Jackets got a little lucky on that play. If so, their defense deserved to catch a break. That group earned this victory.
It’s possible South Florida’s offense may not be that good. The Bulls didn’t score a point in the opener against Wisconsin. But they have some talent, including Barnett. He was the starter at Alabama before Jalen Hurts took over.
Barnett spent most of Saturday escaping Tech’s swarming defenders. That’s what Tech needed because Barnett is big (6-foot-5, 225 pounds) with good feet. His running was a big reason the Bulls came back to beat Tech last season. This time Tech stymied Barnett to the point that coach Charlie Strong turned to McCloud.
Tech opponents no longer need to worry about the triple option, which is a pain to prepare for. Now the bigger worry is Tech’s defense, which no longer is an add-on.