Georgia Tech produced the turnovers it had been seeking, yielding the advantageous field position that it had been lacking.

On a crisp November late afternoon, however, it wasn’t enough. Even with Tech shaking down Pittsburgh for three turnovers and blocking a punt, the Yellow Jackets fell to the Panthers 20-10 on Saturday before an announced homecoming crowd of 41,219 at Bobby Dodd Stadium. Tech’s hopes to build on its momentous road win over Miami were restrained by an offense that gained 194 yards in 50 plays and was 2-for-13 on third downs. The last time that Tech was held under 200 yards was 2016 loss to Clemson.

“So getting turnovers was a big deal – we did that,” coach Geoff Collins said. “Just looking back, we need to capitalize on those turnovers.”

Cunningham: Offense still holding Jackets back

Tech (2-6, 1-4 ACC) will now need to win its final four games to reach .500 for bowl eligibility. Pittsburgh (6-3, 3-2) has won four of the past five games against the Jackets in the annual series.

The Jackets defense, playing without linebacker Bruce Jordan-Swilling and with fellow linebacker Charlie Thomas limited, held up admirably. Tech allowed Pitt to gain only 71 yards in the second half after giving up 291 in the first half.

Collins said that Pitt showed Tech a few looks that the coaching staff had not seen, and that having Jaquez Jackson at the will linebacker spot (he moved over there from the mike linebacker position due to Jordan-Swilling being out and Thomas being limited) created some problems.

“But nobody panicked,” Collins said. “They got to the sideline, listened to coach (Andrew) Thacker and the defensive staff who do a magnificent job with our defense and got them corrected, got them fixed. 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.”

But the offense could not get traction, amassing five three-and-outs and turning the ball over twice. 

“We wanted to establish the run, we had (run-pass option plays) built off it, and some of them just weren’t connecting,” Collins said. “And then they’ve got a really good front four, they’ve got a really good front seven, and trying to get movement on them at times was really good, at other times we didn’t have success. But credit goes to them.”

Collins elected to replace starting quarterback James Graham after halftime with Lucas Johnson. Graham was 2-for-9 passing for 54 yards. He did account for Tech’s only touchdown of the game, a 51-yard deep ball to slot receiver Ahmarean Brown in the second quarter.

“To be honest, I didn’t play as well as I should have played,” Graham said. “I missed a lot of throws that I should have made.”

It was Johnson’s first action at quarterback since the loss to The Citadel in the third game of the season. Johnson suffered an upper-body injury in that game and was unavailable for several games after that, which helped open the door for Graham to ascend to the top spot.

Graham’s touchdown pass directly followed defensive end Jordan Domineck’s recovery of a fumble caused by linebacker David Curry, which gave Tech the ball at its 49-yard line.

It turned out to be Tech’s only points off of the three takeaways it accrued in the game, an interception by safety Juanyeh Thomas and another interception by safety Tariq Carpenter. They were welcome plays for the Jackets after creating four turnovers in the previous five. It was a contributing factor to Tech having only four possessions in the previous four games start past its 35-yard line.

However, Tech went three-and-out after Thomas’ acrobatic interception and kicker Brenton King missed right from 34 yards on a field-goal attempt after Carpenter’s interception returned the ball to the offense at the Pitt 40.

Tech’s blocked punt – provided by Jerry Howard, his second of the season and his career – gave the Jackets the ball at the Pitt 12 in the third quarter, but the offense lost a yard in three plays and had to settle for a King 30-yard field goal, which cut Pitt’s lead to 17-10. It was the third game in a row that Tech has blocked a kick or punt.

Tech’s struggle on offense was not a surprising outcome, given Pitt’s defensive might and the continued challenges of the Jackets to move the ball with consistency. The Jackets became the sixth Pitt opponent to be held to 20 points or fewer, and themselves failed to clear 20 for the fourth time this season. Running back Jordan Mason, after running for 100 yards in each of his past two games, was limited to 56 yards on 15 carries.

“We gave up less than 200 yards,” Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi said. “That doesn’t happen in college football nowadays.”

Still, thanks to Tech’s defensive play – highlighted by Thomas’ strong work – the Jackets were down 17-10 when they took over at their 32-yard line with 6:13 remaining in the third quarter. Johnson led Tech to a first-and-goal from the Pitt 6, converting first downs with on-target throws to Nathan Cottrell and Adonicas Sanders.

“I had a tough half and Lucas had a great week of practice, so they gave him a shot,” Graham said. “I supported it and picked up the team and just went with the flow and he actually did a good job.”

On third-and-goal from the 4, Johnson shot out of the pocket on a draw and was closing in on the goal line. If he were to reach the end zone, the score could have been tied at 17-17. But Johnson had the ball jarred loose, and it rolled into the end zone, where linebacker Cam Bright picked it up and ran 79 yards. It was a stunning reversal that evoked Tobias Oliver’s goal-line fumble against Temple. Further, Johnson was injured on the play, and he left the field for the locker room.

It was another tough break for Johnson, who missed the 2018 season with a foot injury and was sidelined earlier in the season.

Pitt turned the turnover into a 49-yard field goal for a 20-10 lead, a two-possession advantage that held for the final score. Collins praised the defense for not bending after the fumble return, and having a “put the ball down” mentality.

After starting on Tech’s 21, the Panthers actually lost 10 yards on three plays. Collins said that, six months ago, the defense wouldn’t have had that resolve.

“Obviously, we wish it was a better result, wish it would have been a win,” Collins said. “Obviously, wish we hadn’t lost the ball on the goal line going into the fourth quarter, but we learn from those things and we build from those things.”

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