For Georgia Tech, the season opener generated feelings of frustration over what could have been. Game No. 2 might have evoked feelings of gratitude for what had been avoided.
Saturday at Bobby Dodd Stadium, Jacksonville State did what Yellow Jackets opponents typically need to do to secure victory – the Gamecocks thwarted Tech’s vaunted running game. Playing less than five full days after their 96-play marathon against Tennessee, the Jackets mustered but 210 rushing yards on 49 attempts. In coach Paul Johnson’s 121-game catalog at Tech, the rushing total fell in the bottom 20th percentile. Tech’s offensive line had difficulty generating push, and Jacksonville State’s defense at times overwhelmed.
“They were just being really disruptive and all their guys on defense, they were really flying to the ball,” quarterback TaQuon Marshall said.
Or, as Johnson put it, “We got our butts whipped up front.”
It drew a distinction in so many ways from Monday night’s double-overtime loss to Tennessee, when the Jackets lost despite gouging out 535 rushing yards, second most in Johnson’s tenure. The Volunteers practically surrendered the middle of the field to Tech, allowing the Jackets to get rich with B-back KirVonte Benson and Marshall following their line up the middle.
“I said before we started (the season) I’m not sure (the Gamecocks) weren’t the best defense that we were going to play coming out of the gate, and after watching them, I’m pretty sure they are,” Johnson said.
However, where the Tech defense faltered against Tennessee in the second half, allowing touchdowns on five of the final six possessions of the game, the unit was more than accountable against Jacksonville State. Along with the Jackets’ supremely efficient passing efforts – three touchdowns in Marshall’s seven attempts – the Tech defenders won the day.
Tech created three turnovers in a four-possession stretch, all three of which gave the Jackets offense short fields and were cashed in for touchdowns. The takeaways flipped a 7-3 deficit into a 23-7 advantage in less than eight minutes of game clock.
The turnovers – interceptions by defensive backs Lawrence Austin and Step Durham and a fumble recovery by safety A.J. Gray – held particular meaning after the defense had none against Tennessee. The Jackets played four such games last season, as well.
“We won the game and thank goodness the defense showed up and played big,” Johnson said.
It is phrasing Johnson has not often used following Tech wins. “You couldn’t miss your turn” might be a more familiar observation, referring to the pressure to score on each possession because the opponent was doing likewise.
A few words of perspective: It was an FCS opponent that Tech held to 10 points and thrice plundered for turnover booty. Further, the takeaways did not rate high on the scale of degree of difficulty. Quarterback Bryant Horn threw the ball right to Austin and Durham (Austin: “He just threw it right to me”) and fumbled the ball that Gray recovered without any assistance from Tech.
Still, credit Tech for being in the right spots to secure the turnovers. Takeaways are sometimes the residue of taking advantage of mistakes.
Had Tech not lay claim on those miscues, who’s to say how the game would have unfolded? Tech was in a tough spot before Austin’s interception. The Jackets had just been stoned on third-and-2 and fourth-and-1 and were down 7-3. Ranked No. 5 in FCS, Jacksonville State was driving to go into halftime up two possessions with the ball to start the second half.
Tech might well have pulled it together, but Johnson had reason after the game to breathe a sigh of relief, figurative if not literal. Prior to the Tennessee game, he chafed at the scheduling of it, questioning the wisdom of scheduling an FCS powerhouse on short rest.
The play of his dead-legged offense would seem to have confirmed his concern.
“It looked like we were playing in sand,” Johnson said.
Further, defensive coordinator Ted Roof’s group kept up the fight after the turnover frenzy, registering three three-and-outs in the Gamecocks’ final four possessions. Forced to throw, Tech closed the game with four sacks in those four Jacksonville State drives. Again, it’s an FCS offense, albeit one with a gifted tailback in Roc Thomas, once a five-star prospect coming out of high school. But finishing well is better than stepping off the gas.
“We know how we felt last week in the second half,” Austin said. “Nobody wanted to feel the same way, so those (defensive line) guys started to take over and get their dog inside of them, that fire.”
For Tech, the level of competition takes a step up next Saturday with a road game at UCF, presuming the weather cooperates. The Knights are coached by Scott Frost, formerly Oregon’s offensive coordinator. UCF averaged 75 plays per game last season, tied for 32nd most in FBS.
Keeping up with up-tempo offenses has often been a challenge for the Jackets defense. Further, UCF, whose Saturday game against Memphis was cancelled due to the threat of Hurricane Irma, figures to be running on fresher legs.
Said Johnson, “We can play much better.”
After two games in which one unit outshined the other, Tech is, fittingly, 1-1. Perhaps in a more conventional setting, on a week’s rest and not in a neutral-site, made-for-TV matchup, the Jackets can level out.
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