On homecoming, Georgia Tech played with effort, produced three turnovers in one half and was lights out defensively in the other. But, with a low-wattage offensive showing, Georgia Tech fell 20-10 to Pitt.
Against a Panthers defense ranked 14th nationally in yardage allowed per game, the lowest-scoring team in the ACC struggled again, this time with a season low in yards gained (194).
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Five takeaways from the loss:
1. Good things from defense
The change in the play of the defense from the first half to the second was dramatic. In eight first-half possessions, Pitt scored 17 points and gained 291 yards on 42 plays (6.9 yards per play). Quarterback Kenny Pickett completed 16 of 24 passes for 173 yards (he did throw two interceptions against one touchdown) and the Panthers converted five of eight third downs. Running back Vincent Davis took a direct snap 61 yards for a touchdown when the Jackets failed to fill a gap in the line. Notably, Tech did gain three takeaways after scraping for four in the previous five games, achieving a major objective.
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After halftime, Pitt ran 28 plays and gained 71 yards (2.5 ypp) and scored three points in six possessions. The Panthers were 2 for 8 on third down. Pickett was nine for 10, but only for 31 yards.
Georgia Tech head coach Geoff Collins said that, in the first half, Pitt showed some formations that it hadn’t run previously and that there were some issues resulting from linebacker Quez Jackson adjusting to playing the “willy” linebacker position in place of Bruce Jordan-Swilling (out for the season with a foot injury) and Charlie Thomas (limited with an upper-body injury).
“Guys were able to have composure and be able to listen, make the corrections and come back out there and play a really, really good second half,” Collins said.
It was not dissimilar to the defense improving play in the second half against Duke and North Carolina.
2. Passing game off
Quarterback James Graham owned his poor play in the first half that led to him being replaced by Johnson after halftime. He was 2 for 9 for 54 yards (one of the two completions was his 51-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Ahmarean Brown) and missed on some makeable passes, which has been a problem in his young tenure as Tech’s No. 1 quarterback.
“I felt like I was rushing everything,” Graham said. “I should have just settled down, settled my feet, and I’m just going to get better this week at practice working on things like that in the pocket.”
Graham returned in the fourth quarter after Johnson was knocked out of the game — he took a shot to the head and shoulder on the play in which he fumbled just shy of the goal line. In the last quarter, Graham was 1-for-4 with an interception.
Graham has shown he can make the throws and has a powerful arm, but his accuracy needs some improvement. He has completed 43.4 percent of his passes, not nearly enough in an offense that isn’t efficient enough to overcome mistakes.
3. Offense as a whole off
Graham’s off throwing game was only part of the challenge on offense against Pitt. Running back Jordan Mason was not afforded many clear opportunities (as he had been the past two games, when he gained back-to-back 100-yard games) and the Jackets gained 86 rushing yards, quite a fall from their 207 yards on the ground against Miami. Mason had 56 yards on 15 carries.
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The Jackets had one play of 20 yards or more, were 2 for 13 on third down and averaged 3.9 yards per play. Tech became the fifth Pitt opponent to be held under 4.0.
Collins said the offense failed to hit on some run-pass option plays that coaches expected would hit.
“But let’s never discount that that’s a really good defense, really good players,” he said.
4. Special teams up and down
Tech had another mixed-bag game on special teams. The undisputed highlight was Jerry Howard’s punt block, his second in three games. The Jackets have blocked a kick or punt in three consecutive games.
“I say if you give 100 percent and you do your assignment, somebody’s going to block it,” he said. “That’s how I feel and I did my assignment. I was that lucky person to block it.”
However, the Jackets allowed Maurice Ffrench to have punt returns of 24, 19 and 16 yards. Kicker Brenton King missed a field-goal try from 34 yards, before making later from 30. The kickoff return team was penalized three times on four returns, although one was declined.
5. Morale still up
Even in defeat, players continued to show obvious signs of energy and camaraderie. Between the third and fourth quarter, when Tech was down 17-10, almost the entire team huddled up in front of the sideline, with players as exuberant and animated as though they were ahead by seven and playing for a bowl berth.
Collins took pride in the defense’s response after the game-changing third-quarter fumble by quarterback Lucas Johnson and the ensuing 79-yard return.
In that situation, “people that don’t have a strong mindset and have the propensity to be negative or ‘woe is me’ or whatever, would just let go of the rope and just let them walk into score,” Collins said. “Our guys did not do that.”
Instead, starting at the Tech 21, Pitt lost 10 yards in three plays and settled for a field goal.
“You know how, in life, bad stuff’s going to happen to you?” safety Juanyeh Thomas asked. “What are you going to do, be down about it? We treat this (season) as life. So if we lose or something, we can’t be down, because we’ve got a whole ’nother game the next week.”
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