Georgia Tech quarterback TaQuon Marshall (16) and running back Clinton Lynch (22) celebrate at Bobby Dodd Stadium on Saturday, September 23, 2017. Georgia Tech won 35-17 over Pittsburgh. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Georgia Tech quarterback TaQuon Marshall’s eyes show focus

TaQuon Marshall had a different look in his eyes after Tuesday’s practice. 

The first-year starting quarterback for Georgia Tech typically is a lighthearted interview -- filled with a humbled confidence peppered in with a few jokes.

His tone differed as the Yellow Jackets prepare for North Carolina to come to town Saturday. The Tar Heels have beaten Tech three consecutive times, including a 48-20 thrashing in Chapel Hill last season. Paul Johnson was 5-1 against UNC before the recent streak. 

It would be hard to figure out why Marshall isn’t satisfied with his play just based on numbers. He ran for 112 yards and two touchdowns in a stress-free 35-17 win over Pittsburgh on Saturday. He also completed four of his seven passes and didn’t turn the ball over. 

Hidden behind those statistics is that the offense didn’t perform up to its standards against the Panthers. Tech turned the ball over four times, all fumbles from three different B-backs. While none were credited to Marshall, his meshes -- the point where the ball is held in the pocket of the B-back from the quarterback -- were admittedly bad all day. He also had an interception negated on a day where he missed multiple open passes downfield. 

“Terrible,” Marshall said about the film review of his performance. “I didn’t play really well. Holding on to the ball, fundamentals, bad passes … I threw terrible. Just overall I just wasn’t really happy with my performance. After I watched the film, it just made it even worse for me. Bad arm slot, just being lazy really. That’s all I can say about it … (footwork) with the meshes were terrible the whole game actually.”

Strong critique for a game in which the offense ran for 436 yards. Marshall’s expectations have risen quickly. After not being named starter until just before the season opener on Labor Day, Marshall’s leadership and poise have made the once-tight quarterback competition look like it never should’ve been in doubt.

Through three games, Marshall’s numbers stack up favorably against the four previous Johnson-led quarterbacks beginning their careers. His 90 carries and 458 yards best Justin Thomas’ 43 and 278 that led before him. His nine touchdowns are more than double what the powerful Joshua Nesbitt managed in his first three games. While Tevin Washington’s numbers through the air surpass what Marshall has done so far, he totaled just 22 carries and 72 yards through that point. Marshall’s 62.5 completion percentage is also tops, while Washington is the only other quarterback who didn’t throw an interception in his first three contests. 

When taking into account that Marshall’s first three quality of opponents -- Tennessee, Jacksonville State and Pittsburgh -- exceed what any other quarterback faced early on, the fact that Marshall still is clearly unsatisfied could bode well for the future of the Jackets. 

“Practice harder, focus more,” Marshall said about his mentality this week. “You’re going to practice like you’re going to play, so you’ve just got to go out there with the mentality that it’s game day. Even when you’re tired, make sure you stay focused and just keep going.”

The entire offense has come out to practice with a new attitude after a disappointing outing, according to multiple players. Johnson hadn’t been exceedingly happy with the sense of urgency in practice the weeks prior to the team’s first two games. 

“Yeah, everybody across the offense has a new level of dedication because even though we won, it’s embarrassing to make the mistakes we made last week all across the board,” offensive lineman Parker Braun, who recorded 22 takedowns against Pitt, said. “So I think everybody has come out this week with a new sense of dedication and a new sense of focus. Just the pace has sort of picked up from last week.” 

KirVonte Benson contributed two of the fumbles against Pitt, though he did have a game-high 196 yards on the ground. Benson felt he and Marshall did struggle in the mesh throughout the game.

“He was handing the ball off and wasn’t really carrying out his fake,” Benson said. “But he learned from it and he improved in today’s practice. The mesh is an important thing and we can’t start the play without it.” 

With the offense averaging more rushing yards than anyone in the nation and averaging 37.7 points per game, Johnson and players feel they haven’t performed anywhere near what they’re capable of, leaving plenty to potentially be excited for as the Jackets enter into a tough stretch of games. ESPN’s “Football Power Index” ranks Tech’s remaining strength of schedule as the second hardest in the country. 

“I’m excited for the future,” Braun said. “I’m excited for when all the puzzle pieces really lock in and fit, and I’m looking forward to the end of the season, I think we’re going to do a lot better than we have so far.”

The Tar Heels have scored at ease against Tech in recent meetings, so Marshall is prepared for the offense to do its job in a game plan that ideally limits UNC’s chances while putting points on the board.

“We’ve already talked about that we need to hold on to the ball and make sure that we score almost every time that we get the ball,” Marshall said. “So this is going to be a big test for us offensively.” 

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