The Geoff Collins era debuted with mistakes, a titanic opponent, some limitations and, hence, an overwhelming defeat.
Georgia Tech had some encouraging moments, but not nearly enough as No. 1 Clemson was decidedly superior in a 52-14 loss for the Yellow Jackets on Thursday night at Memorial Stadium.
“We had chances,” Collins said. “We had fourth-and-1, we didn’t convert, we got down on the goal line, didn’t convert. Turnovers early hurt us, and I think the story of the game was big plays. I thought we tackled well, I thought our guys ran to the ball. (Clemson) had some really nice throws and catches and they broke some big runs. So the explosive plays – when we go back and look at it, limit those and it’s a different game.”
Leading the Jackets for the first time, Collins debuted much-awaited changes from the tenure of former coach Paul Johnson, namely the spread offense out of the shotgun. The team, while falling behind significantly, played with the energy and effort that Collins has sought to make a foundational element.
“We’re just going to continue to get better,” Collins said. “But just proud of the way they fought, the way they stuck together.”
Collins also played Jahaziel Lee at both left tackle on offense and defensive tackle on defense for several snaps, an example of his plan to use players at multiple positions to meet needs and also get the best players on the field as much as possible. Tech played 22 freshmen in the game, including 11 first-year players.
As offensive coordinator Dave Patenaude had indicated since his hire, Tech (0-1, 0-1 ACC) sought to play to its strengths, namely the run game that had defined Johnson’s 11 seasons.
Collins started Tobias Oliver at quarterback, who is the most experienced of his three scholarship quarterbacks and who proved his ability to run the ball last season as TaQuon Marshall’s backup. Tech started the game running a series of keepers and gives to running backs. The first half ended with a 29/9 run/pass ratio, a typical balance for Johnson’s teams.
The run game was intermittently effective against the stout Clemson defense, often done in by negative plays that put the Jackets behind the chains. Tech punted five times in eight first-down possessions and ended the other three with a fumble, a turnover on downs and an interception.
Those three series, as well as another giveaway in special teams, figured prominently in Clemson’s putting the game away by halftime, going into the locker room ahead 28-0.
“It was the first game,” said running back Jordan Mason, who ran 13 times for a team-high 72 yards. “We had some freshman mistakes, we had some people that haven’t played get in, they made some mistakes. Just some things we’ve got to work on in practice. We’ve got to put this one down and get ready for the next week.”
Early on, Juanyeh Thomas could not secure a punt after the Tech defense got a three-and-out on Clemson’s opening series, giving the Tigers the ball inside Tech’s 20 and leading to the game’s first touchdown. After Clemson (1-0, 1-0) stretched the lead to 14-0, freshman running back Jamious Griffin and Oliver botched a handoff, and Clemson recovered on the Tech 14. Running back Travis Etienne was in the end zone on the next play for a 21-0 edge less than 19 minutes into the game.
On the ensuing possession, Tech appeared to make a fourth-and-1 when Oliver went under center and ran a successful sneak, but the play was ruled dead before the snap as Collins had called timeout from the sideline. On the play following the timeout, Oliver went back to the shotgun and a handoff to Mason was stopped short for a turnover on downs.
“Get a first down on fourth-and-1, punch it into the end zone, who knows what’s happening going into halftime?” Collins asked.
Collins said that team objectives going into the game were to avoid turnovers, generate takeaways and limit big plays. Tech turned the ball over four times, got three takeaways and gave up seven plays of 20 yards or more. So, 1 for 3.
“The thing that I was proud of was the way we tackled,” Collins said. “I thought we tackled really, really well. They swarmed to the ball. They played really hard. They kept competing all the way through, and if you have things like that, you have something to build on.”
Cornerback Tre Swilling made one of a series of sterling plays on Clemson’s next drive, intercepting quarterback Trevor Lawrence and returning it 41 yards to the Tigers’ 2-yard line, ending Lawrence’s streak of 181 consecutive passes without an interception.
“That was a (defensive) look there, they fooled us,” Clemson co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said.
However, the Jackets were unable to get into the end zone on four tries, twice attempting gadget plays that failed. On fourth down, Oliver’s pass into the end zone was deflected and intercepted.
Tech got on the board in the third quarter, as Mason finished a three-play, 75-yard drive with a 7-yard scoring run to cut the lead to 35-7. Oliver was later relieved by James Graham, who led Tech’s second touchdown drive, completing a 34-yard pass to slot receiver Josh Blancato and then dropping a pinpoint deliver to freshman slot receiver Ahmarean Brown behind the defense for a 34-yard touchdown reception.
“I knew I had (Brown) one-on-one with the safety and he’s probably going to win nine times out of 10, and I gave him a shot there to catch the ball,” Graham said.
The Tech defense appeared to give Lawrence problems, as he threw two interceptions and was uncharacteristically off-target. However, the pass rush was largely ineffective, and Lawrence did make the Jackets pay when he did find his targets, notably a 62-yard touchdown pass to Tee Higgins, who beat cornerback Zamari Walton in single coverage on a deep route. Clemson also hit a home run with running back Travis Etienne, who raced for touchdown runs of 90 and 48 yards.
“We’ve got to make sure we’re fitting the gaps,” Collins said. “Any little crease, we’re going to get exposed.”
Tech returns to Atlanta to prepare for its home opener Sept. 7 against South Florida.
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