With defeat upon his shoulders, Georgia Tech coach Geoff Collins took off his headset and pointed to the north stands of Bobby Dodd Stadium. It was his signal for the team to head through the tunnel to the team locker room under the stands. There was no reason to linger upon Grant Field any longer than necessary.
In an alarming result that only future games and seasons will be able to put into full context, the Yellow Jackets were stunned by The Citadel 27-24 in overtime Saturday afternoon. Against an FCS opponent, Tech was haunted by an option offense highly similar to the one former coach Paul Johnson directed for 11 largely successful seasons, sending the Jackets to one of the more humbling defeats in team history.
Collins, in the third game of his tenure, accepted responsibility for the loss.
“Obviously, when you just look at the loss (Saturday), it’s going to hurt, right?” Collins said. “And it’s going to look bad, and I’ve got to imagine I’m going to look bad. And that’s fine. I can take it. I understand what this program is going to look like, I understand what this program is going to be, and I’m proud of those guys, how hard they fight to make it happen.”
Tech, of course, is not the only team to suffer the fate of losing to an FCS opponent, and another team from The Citadel defeated South Carolina in 2015. However, that Bulldogs team finished the season 9-4 and advanced to the second round of the FCS playoffs. This version had come into Saturday’s game 0-2 (with losses to two Top 25 FCS teams) and was a 27-point underdog.
The Bulldogs chewed up Tech with the same precise, methodical and clock-burning run game that the Jackets had used to hold their own in the ACC for 11 years with Johnson. They were 8-for-16 on third downs, making hay on third-and-short in specific – 7-for-10 on third-and-4 or shorter. Citadel ran 71 times and passed four times, the only completion a 30-yard play-action touchdown pass for the game’s opening score.
“It felt like we were on the field all day,” safety Tariq Carpenter said. “It’s not like I was tired. It was just the fact that they were just chewing up the clock. They executed their offense better than we could stop them.”
The Citadel offense “did a lot of unique things” that it hadn’t done in the first two games and also broke tendencies that it had shown in those games and even dating back to last season, Collins said. Defensive players said that they had not had a good week of practice as they overlooked their FCS opponent.
“I don’t think that this week there was super good attention to every detail, like we should, and that showed up (Saturday),” linebacker David Curry said. “But we’ve just got to show up to play, and every single game, no matter who you’re playing, you can’t just roll the ball out and think that you’re going to win.”
Penalties were a huge part of the defeat, and not only the three inexplicable unsportsmanlike-conduct flags that the Jackets drew in a single defensive series in the second quarter. An offside penalty gave the Bulldogs a third-and-1 that they converted in the midst of a touchdown drive at the end of the first half. A face-mask penalty extended a fourth-quarter drive that didn’t end up in points, but that still lasted 8:41 and consumed 13 plays. On the Bulldogs’ drive that concluded with a field goal that put them up 24-21 with 1:51 remaining in regulation, another offside shortened a second-and-8 to second-and-3, which the Bulldogs converted.
Tech committed a total of four penalties in its first two games. The damage on Saturday: eight flags for 80 yards.
“The thing that I’m disappointed in and blame myself for was the penalties,” Collins said.
The offense, again quarterbacked by both starter Lucas Johnson and Tobias Oliver (freshman James Graham was not dressed, his right foot encased in a walking boot), came to life in the second half after the Jackets fell behind 14-6 in the first half, gaining only 115 yards.
Tech moved the ball even as the Jackets played with an offensive line that Collins called “piecemeal” after offensive tackle Jahaziel Lee left the game with a leg injury, necessitating the insertion of walk-on guard Hamp Gibbs for his first college snaps.
Johnson found wide receiver Jalen Camp for a 33-yard touchdown pass, and then they connected again on a two-point play to tie the score at 14-14 at the 10:50 mark of the third quarter. With Oliver behind center, the Jackets drove 67 yards for another game-tying touchdown in the fourth quarter and finally got a game-tying field goal at the end of regulation, a 34-yarder from Brenton King, in a drive that both quarterbacks played.
King’s field goal followed a strange sequence in the final 15 seconds, in which Collins said he was told by an official that, after a 10-second run-off because of a false start on center Kenny Cooper that reduced the remaining time to 13 seconds, the clock would begin on the snap.
However, when the clock began to run when the ball was set, Collins realized the situation and called timeout, only to have Oliver take the snap and run 17 yards for a potential game-winning touchdown, causing the stadium to erupt and the marching band to play. However, the play was negated as officials had acknowledged Collins’ timeout call.
“I imagine that was a key factor in that game,” Collins said dryly of the official’s apparent miscommunication.
In overtime, starting with the ball, Tech faced a third-and-8 when Johnson was sacked for a 5-yard loss, pushing King’s field-goal try out to 46 yards, which he missed. The Citadel won the game with a 37-yard make from Jacob Godek on the ensuing possession.
It was a defining afternoon for The Citadel, which received $400,000 for its efforts. It was something decidedly different for the home team.
“(Saturday) sucked,” Collins said. “We can be honest. If I can use that word, it sucked. But we are going to get better from it.”