Georgia Tech still looks wobbly at 2-0

In the early days of Evander Holyfield’s career, when he would win fights but impress few with an unexciting style, his old trainer George Benton responded to criticism this way: “Win this fight. Look good the next fight.”

If George Benton coached Georgia Tech, he would’ve said it twice now.

Tech is 2-0. Since no team is going to win style points with wins over Wofford and Tulane, anyway, the Yellow Jackets are in the best position they could possibly be in after two games. But at some point, they need to look better — because that two in the left column is wobbling a little.

“Frustrating, disappointing to start like that,” Tech coach Paul Johnson said Saturday. “First game, maybe nervous. OK. But there’s no excuse to start like that the second game. We’ve gotta grow up.”

That was a 2-0 coach speaking. People get on Johnson sometimes for being Mr. Grumpy Gills, but give him points for honesty.

The Jackets defeated Tulane 38-21. They won on a miserably hot and humid day and in somewhat difficult circumstances, with Tulane opening a new on-campus stadium.

But this was one of those, “You don’t want to see how the sausage is made” games.

The Jackets fumbled on their first play from scrimmage. They fumbled again on their first play of their third possession. They turned the ball over three times. But Tulane must have been guilt-ridden over Tech’s generosity because they answered with three interceptions and had a punt blocked late after seemingly operating in slow motion.

In Week 1, Tech led Wofford only 10-9 at halftime. In Week 2, they trailed an inferior team from the American Athletic Conference — a team that lost its first game to Tulsa — 7-0, 14-7 and 21-14 before scrambling to lead 24-21 at the intermission.

This won’t work against Virginia Tech. It won’t work against Miami or Duke or Wake Forest.

OK. Maybe Wake Forest.

Johnson again: “I told the team after the game this is not the standard I want to play at. That’s not acceptable. We can play better. We’re 2-0, but when they see the tape, I think they’ll know.”

The Jackets ran the ball better than in their first game, rushing for 344 yards, led by Tony Zenon (two touchdowns and 62 yards in his New Orleans homecoming), Zack Laskey (86) and quarterback Justin Thomas (70). They certainly deserve credit for rebounding from early hiccups and shutting out Tulane in the second half.

But little about the first two games says the Jackets are ready for conference play. On offense, they’re not fluid. On defense, they’re creating little pass pressure. Tulane almost matched them in yardage (359-327) and burned the Tech secondary with a 61-yard touchdown pass.

“We’re just building right now,” said linebacker Quayshawn Nealy, who had a 10-yard interception return for a touchdown and was one of the few players Johnson credited with strong play. “We’re getting better each game. Last week the defense struggled, and this week we played strong in the second half.”

The fumbling issues are particularly bothersome to Johnson. He has made it a point of emphasis to improve the team in that area. Tech had 28 fumbles in 2013 and lost 11. Their opponents had only 17 fumbles and lost six. How is it that with all of that preaching and practice, Tech still appeared to rank among the nation’s leaders in thumbs again early?

On the first play, quarterback Justin Thomas ran into Tulane linebacker Eric Thomas after a play-action and fumbled, giving the Green Wave the ball at the Tech 8-yard line. One minute later, it was 7-0. Zenon failed to handle a Thomas pitch on the third drive but Tulane didn’t capitalize, missing a field-goal attempt.

When Tulane reciprocated with turnovers, Tech took advantage. Nealy’s interception return tied the score at 14-14. Demond Smith’s pick at the Tulane 30 led to Zenon’s 19-yard touchdown run to make the score 21-21. Tech led 24-21 at halftime, but didn’t have it safely put away until Matt Connors blocked a punt 4:30 into the fourth quarter and the Jackets scored 1:35 later on a Tim Byerly sneak.

Next week, it’s Georgia Southern. Tech probably could afford to make mistakes again and still win. The record probably will say 3-0 after next week. But the coach would feel better if there’s something good to talk about.