Clemson wide receiver Hunter Renfrow
Photo: 13
Photo: 13

Breaking down Georgia Tech’s dooming start in loss to Clemson

Georgia Tech players and coaches didn’t need to be informed of the realities of their matchup with No. 3 Clemson. With the Tigers owning such an advantage in talent, the Yellow Jackets would have to play with precision and seize opportunities when presented just to have a chance for an upset.

None of Tech’s past three games against Clemson had gone that way, however, nor had either of the Jackets’ two losses to South Florida and Pittsburgh in the previous two weeks.

“All those self-inflicted wounds,” defensive end Desmond Branch said of the USF and Pitt losses.

Needing to break from habits, Tech failed. A 49-21 defeat to Clemson was the result.

“This game, they were a really good team, but we were going stride for stride with them in the first half, and it’s just one thing led to another, led to another, led to another, and the score looked like how it looked,” Branch said.

Forthwith, a recounting of one thing leading to another, leading to another.

Taking the ball on the opening kickoff, the Yellow Jackets moved smartly from the game’s opening play from scrimmage, a 20-yard run on an option pitch by A-back Qua Searcy. Quarterback TaQuon Marshall steadily picked up yards, cutting sharply upfield. With three more first downs gained, Tech had a first-and-10 from the Clemson 17-yard line.

“Just out-leveraged us on the edge a few times,” Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables said. “Very simple. They just got in our legs on the edge and I think we played that better after that drive. It’s as simple as that. Their blocker got on our outside leg and they were able to get around our defense and that was it.”

However, Tech stalled after that, showing the inconsistency and difficulty in finishing off drives that led to the USF and Pitt losses. A false start on Searcy bumped Tech back five yards for first-and-15. B-back Jerry Howard gained six yards back on first down. But on second-and-9, with quarterback Tobias Oliver subbing for Marshall, out briefly with a leg injury, coach Paul Johnson called for a toss to Howard.

It was an unusual formation, with three offensive linemen, both A-backs and a wide receiver lined up tight on the right side of the line, but that side of the line was slow off the snap. It gave cornerback A.J. Terrell had a free run at Howard, hitting him as he tried to secure the toss. Searcy recovered for Tech, but for a five-yard loss. On third-and-14 from the 21, Johnson called for a quick-hitting pass, but defensive tackle Christian Wilkins pierced the line, exploiting poor execution of the designated pass protection, and stripped Marshall, causing another loss, this time for 10 yards.

“We’ve got to coach ’em better in pass protection, clearly, because we’re not very good at it,” Johnson said.

A screen capture of a toss play to B-back Jerry Howard on the Georgia Tech's game-opening drive. A slow jump off the snap by the right side of the line likely helped Clemson cornerback A.J. Terrell force a fumble on the toss. (Screen capture from ABC broadcast)

Tech sent out the field goal unit for kicker Brenton King to try a 48-yard field goal for a 3-0 lead. Despite a drive with a penalty and two fumbles, a field goal would have given Tech a lead for the first time over Clemson since the 2014 game and. Having eaten up more than half the first quarter, it would have set a tone for the game. But Jack DeFoor moved before the snap, moving Tech out of field-goal range. The Jackets punted instead.

“So we wasted the momentum of the first drive,” Johnson said.

The Tech defense made quick work of Clemson’s first possession, ending it with a sack in what proved to be the Jackets’ only tackle for a loss in the game. Curry came on a delayed blitz, pushing quarterback Kelly Bryant up in the pocket into nose tackle Kyle Cerge-Henderson.

Tech got the ball back on its 29, but the mistakes continued. On the first play, Marshall pitched to A-back Clinton Lynch, but it was off target and fell to the turf, and Tech once again was fortunate to recover. Again behind schedule to pick up a first down, Tech played into the hands of Clemson’s fierce defense. Venables rushed six players, and linebacker Tre Lamar forced Marshall into the arms of linebacker J.D. Davis for yet another loss, this time for 10 yards.

It was about to get much worse. On third-and-20, Marshall pitched to Searcy. Running to his left, the ball was slightly behind him, but catchable. Searcy struggled to secure the ball, his concentration perhaps divided by the sight of Lamar barreling straight for him. Lamar drilled Searcy, sending the ball flying backwards. The ball was advanced into the end zone for a touchdown. It was Searcy’s third fumble of the season after having none last year.

“We can’t have the negative plays,” Johnson said. “They’re really good upfront. They’re hard to block. They’ve got big guys, and when you get the opportunity, you’ve got to execute and you’ve got to play. You can’t pitch the ball on the ground. You just can’t do those things.”

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Through 14 plays to that point, Tech had gained 64 yards on the first nine, all on run plays, then lost 40 on the next five.

“Fundamentals – we’re not doing a very good job of coaching ’em,” Johnson said. “Just call it what it is. We’re not.”

Tech’s next series was three-and-out, done in by missed blocks on the first two plays and a deep shot down the left sideline from Marshall to wide receiver Brad Stewart that he caught about a foot out of bounds.

“Upfront, they’re better than we are,” Johnson said. “Not close. That comes back to us recruiting. We knew that. Anybody who watched the game knew that. So that means we have to do things right.”

After Pressley Harvin’s 45-yard punt with no return – he was the Jackets’ lone bright spot Saturday –the Jackets defense answered with its own three-and-out, with freshman cornerback Zamari Walton making a textbook open-field tackle on wide receiver Amari Rodgers short of the first-down marker.

Tech began its next possession on its 29 with 46 seconds left in the quarter. On the second play, Marshall ran a double option with B-back Jordan Mason, who used blocks from Lynch and Cottrell to run through the alley for a 24-yard gain that nearly went for a touchdown. With the score 7-0 in Clemson’s favor, the game was far from decided. A touchdown or even a field goal could settle the Jackets.

Two plays later, a poorly blocked option play that resulted in a five-yard loss was bailed out when Clemson was called for a horse-collar tackle, advancing the ball to Clemson’s 31 with a first down. But on three consecutive downs, the Jackets failed to block Davis, the linebacker, and he made the tackle on all three plays. It limited the Jackets to five yards and brought King back out to try a 43-yard field goal. King missed, his third miss in four tries this season (although they were from 50, 52 and 43 yards). Shawn Davis took the remainder of the placekicks in the game.

To that point, two drives out of Tech’s first four penetrated the Clemson 30, but they produced no points. In Tech’s upset bid, it was a killer.

“Whenever you get down in that red zone and you’re unable to come out with points, it’s definitely a big upset to us because we know we’re not going to get that many opportunities, especially against such a high-caliber team,” Cottrell said. “We showed that we could play with them. It’s just that we weren’t able to execute when we need to.”

Backup quarterback Trevor Lawrence entered the game after that in place of Bryant, and running backs Tavien Feaster and Travis Etienne broke a series of tackles to pick up 39 yards in four rush attempts. After the fourth, cornerback Ajani Kerr was caught mixing it up with wide receiver Tee Higgins and was flagged 15 yards for a personal foul. The next play, Tech didn’t have its Jack linebacker on the field and had to take a timeout.

“I don’t think (Clemson’s fast) tempo really affected anything,” Branch said. “It was more communication-wise along everybody on the defense. Getting the call, executing the call. I feel like they didn’t do anything too special. I felt like most of our wounds came from self-inflicted. Not getting a call, not tackling, not being in the right area, and that really hurt us.”

On second-and-8 from the Tech 17, Lawrence sprinted out left and threw across his body to wide receiver Hunter Renfrow, who broke to the sideline but was reasonably well covered by safety Tariq Carpenter. Cornerback Lamont Simmons, breaking on the ball near the sideline at the 5, nearly got a hand on the ball as Lawrence fit the ball through an aperture that was closing on both sides. Clemson now led 14-0 at the 9:11 mark of the second quarter.

“The Lawrence kid is a really good player,” Johnson said.

It was the sort of throw that earned Lawrence recognition as the top prospect in the 2018 class, exhibition of the talent advantage that Clemson possessed Saturday that didn’t need any of the gifts that Tech had given through about 21 minutes of play – off-target pitches, missed blocks, missed tackles, a missed field goal and three penalties.

September 22, 2018 Atlanta - Clemson wide receiver Justyn Ross (8) exploited a breakdown in Georgia Tech’s pass coverage to score on a 53-yard pass play. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Alas, it continued. Center Jahaziel Lee and Marshall couldn’t execute the snap, and Howard fell on the ball for a six-yard loss, the seventh play out of the past 15 that went for a loss and the fifth fumble. On third-and-13 from the Tech 22, Marshall and wide receiver Malachi Carter misread each other, with Carter pulling up at the first-down marker and Marshall firing downfield, a pass that should have been intercepted but was dropped by cornerback Mark Fields. It was a play that recalled a critical interception against Pitt when Marshall and wide receiver Jalen Camp had a similar miscommunication.

Field’s drop only delayed the coup de grace. On Clemson’s second play of the next possession, Lawrence exploited a coverage breakdown that left wide receiver Justyn Ross wide open down the right sideline. Johnson said Sunday that on the play, one defensive back was playing one coverage, and the rest of the backs were playing another. Lawrence had an easy throw and Ross scored untouched on a 53-yard pass play, giving Clemson a 21-0 advantage halfway through the second quarter, an advantage that was not to be challenged by Tech.

It was Tech’s fourth consecutive loss to the Tigers, all by 14 points or more. Tech fumbled eight times, one shy of the school record. For the third time in as many weeks, the Jackets were left to lament what might have been.

“I’m tired of losing,” Marshall said. “I’m ready to get another ‘W’ on the board so we can get things turned around. I mean, this sucks.”

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