Georgia Tech’s turnaround will have to wait for at least another week.
Hoping to build on a strong offensive finish in their loss last Saturday to North Carolina, the Yellow Jackets instead followed the same template. Saturday, Tech flubbed the first half, giving the Blue Devils all the margin they needed for a 41-23 win before a sparse crowd at Wallace Wade Stadium.
“Some things were clicking in the second half,” coach Geoff Collins said. “We’ve just got to do that earlier.”
Duke scored on all five of its first-half possessions and added a touchdown off a blocked punt, scoring 38 consecutive points to take an unassailable 38-7 lead late in the first half. The Jackets lost similarly to North Carolina last Saturday, when they fell behind 17-0 in the first half before an offensive flurry resulted in a 38-22 defeat.
Saturday’s game started with promise for Tech, as the Jackets moved with efficiency down the field as quarterback James Graham converted a pair of third downs with completions, the second a 19-yared touchdown pass to running back Jerry Howard for a 7-0 lead at the 10:07 mark. It was Tech’s first first-quarter score of the season, ending its distinction as the only FBS team to have not scored in the first 15 minutes this season.
Tech offensive coordinator Dave Patenaude “wanted us to look like the way we did the second half against UNC,” Howard said. “He was like, we gotta go, we gotta go.”
From there, things got precipitously worse on all fronts.
Tech gained one first down on its next five possessions, the Jackets thwarting themselves with failures in pass protection and run blocking and a missed downfield shot to newly minted wide receiver Tobias Oliver, among other lapses.
“Mental errors,” Howard said. “I’d say simple mental errors by running backs, linemen, receivers, quarterback. We had a couple chances to change the game and we just didn’t do it.”
Among the most critical mistakes was an apparent missed blocking assignment on a fourth-and-1 run play that gave Duke the ball at Tech’s 31-yard line, leading to Duke getting into the end zone four plays later for a 31-7 lead.
“The front-side linebacker got a run-through on the power, made a really nice play, and then we have a short field and gave up a touchdown,” Collins said. “Unfortunately, we went into the game wanting to go attack success and we came up short.”
The deficit grew on Tech’s next possession when a missed block in punt protection gave Duke’s Xander Gagnon a free run at punter Pressley Harvin, whose punt was blocked for the first time in his career. The blocked punt was run in from Tech’s 14-yard line for a 38-7 lead at the 3:10 mark of the first half. It was a particularly noteworthy gaffe given the high priority that Collins places on special teams and the punt team in specific.
Tech (1-5 overall, 0-3 ACC) has lost four consecutive games for the first time since the 2015 season, when the Jackets dropped five in a row. The last time the Jackets started a season 1-5 was 1994, when they finished the season 1-10. Duke (4-2, 2-1) has now won five out of the past six against Tech, a run of success that it has not enjoyed since winning seven out of eight from 1976 to 1983.
Collins and team members took encouragement from the team’s play after falling behind by 31 points. Graham led a touchdown drive in Tech’s final possession of the first half, highlighted by a perfectly thrown and caught deep ball to slot receiver Ahmarean Brown for a 40-yard gain.
The defense permitted just three points in the second half on six Duke possessions, doing so even without linebacker David Curry. Tech’s leading tackler was disqualified from the game in the second half on a targeting penalty.
After surrendering 268 yards on 45 plays in the first half, Tech gave up only 105 in the second half on 30 plays.
“We could have played stronger (in the first half),” safety Tariq Carpenter said. “We weren’t playing like men out there in the first half. We were getting bullied, and we addressed that coming out in the second half and it didn’t happen.”
Running back Jordan Mason ran hard and broke tackles to earn the first 100-yard rushing game of his career, finishing with 106 yards on 18 carries. After his first career touchdown reception, Howard also overwhelmed Duke’s punt protection for his first punt block at any level. The special-teams play in the fourth quarter gave Tech the ball at the Duke 41-yard line, from where the Jackets drove for their only touchdown of the second half, a four-yard run by Oliver on an end-around.
An optimist would take heart in two consecutive weeks of improved second-half play while recognizing that Tech has suffered critical injuries to a roster that is freshman-heavy and senior-light. A pessimist might focus on the slew of mistakes. There’s little question on what side Collins stands.
“It’s going to happen, sooner rather than later, and it’s going to be very scary around here when it starts clicking the way it’s going to,” Collins said.