After high-profile season openers in neutral sites the past two seasons, Georgia Tech lined up against an FCS opponent on its home turf to tune up rather than hit the ground at a dead sprint.
The $375,000 that Tech paid to Alcorn State looks like money well-spent for a lower-stakes game than the Yellow Jackets experienced against Boston College in Dublin in 2016 and Tennessee last year at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. In the 41-0 win for Tech, the Yellow Jackets scuffled at times on offense, stretched their legs on defense in their first time out in a new scheme and searched around for answers on special teams.
“We’ve got to make a ton of progress from Week 1 to Week 2 as the competition will continue to ratchet up as we continue to play,” said coach Paul Johnson, whose team plays South Florida in Tampa next Saturday. “For as many guys as we had returning on offense, that was a pretty sloppy performance.”
For Tech (1-0), the most encouraging aspect of the afternoon was the play of new defensive coordinator Nate Woody’s unit, which controlled play in the Braves’ 12 possessions. Tech permitted Alcorn State (0-1) to gain only 146 yards of offense in 51 plays. In Johnson’s 131-game tenure at Tech, only one opponent has been held to fewer yards (Duke, 2008, 132), according to sports-reference.com. Alcorn State crossed midfield just twice, once when a Tech fumble gave the Braves the ball at their 47-yard line.
The Tech defense penetrated the line of scrimmage, chased the ball in numbers and secured Braves ball carriers in the open field. There were hiccups – Tech had to twice call timeout in the third quarter when it only had 10 men on the field – and Alcorn State is the least formidable opponent that the Jackets will face this season. Still, it was a promising start.
Playing before an announced crowd of 39,719, the Tech defense might have been at its best with linebacker David Curry’s scoop-and-score touchdown early in the third quarter. On a stretch run play starting at the Alcorn State 25-yard line, nose tackle Brandon Adams punched the ball loose from running back Marquise Forman, and Curry picked it up and dashed unencumbered to the goal line. Adams was one of three Tech defenders to swarm Forman behind the line of scrimmage, not including Curry.
“I don’t know what it looked like it to y’all, but there’s no confusion,” said Curry, back on the field after missing the entire 2017 season with a foot injury. “Everybody is flying around.”
Johnson was not enthused with his offense. The Jackets did generate 543 yards of offense – 439 on the ground – but he used words like “inconsistent” and “sloppy” in assessing the offense. Tech lost the ball in the first half on a mesh fumble and also an interception by quarterback TaQuon Marshall. There were missed blocks and made mistakes across the field. There were two fumbles.
“I just didn’t like the way we were played considering who we were playing,” Johnson said. “We didn’t throw the ball well, we didn’t block well, we turned too many guys loose at times.”
Marshall, whose commitment to improving as a passer was a theme of the offseason, was 4-for-12 passing in the first half before finishing the day 9-for-18 for 104 yards with one touchdown and one interception.
“I lost my confidence in the first half after missing a couple balls, just got really frustrated with myself,” Marshall said. “And then second half, I think throwing the first couple short routes kind of built my confidence back up, and I was just trying to just play at that point.”
Redshirt freshman B-back Jordan Mason led the Jackets in rushing with 85 yards on 11 carries and a touchdown. Mason got the start after KirVonte Benson was held out of the first quarter for a minor infraction of team rules.
After the game, Johnson pronounced kicker Brenton King the first-string place-kicker after Shawn Davis (who had won the job in the preseason) missed a point-after try off the left upright. Freshman Juanyeh Thomas gave the team a 25-yard punt return – only one Tech punt return in the previous two seasons was longer – but also made a dangerous play fielding a bouncing punt (successfully) deep in the Tech end.
For an opener, it was enough. The road gets bumpier going forward.