In its first-ever meeting with South Florida, Georgia Tech produced an outcome that was all too familiar. The Yellow Jackets gave up a two-score lead in the fourth quarter, losing to USF 49-38 on Saturday at Raymond James Stadium.
Tech (1-1) revisited its agony from 2017, when it lost four games in which it held double-digit advantages – Tennessee, Miami, Virginia and Duke. It was a pattern that led to a change in defensive coordinators and was a motivation for the Jackets to change their ways in the offseason.
“Kind of happened (Saturday),” quarterback TaQuon Marshall said.
USF (2-0), fired up to prove its merit against a power-conference team, took control of the game in the fourth quarter after the Jackets took a 38-28 lead with 14:15 remaining in the game. Over the course of their next two possessions, the Bulls gutted the Jackets by driving 76 and 88 yards for touchdowns to take a 42-38 lead with 5:08 to play in the game. In 18 plays in the two drives, Tech couldn’t slow USF enough to require the Bulls to face a single third down.
“Could never get close to stopping them,” coach Paul Johnson said.
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On the next drive, after Marshall was intercepted when he was hit as he threw on a third-and-20 from the Tech 32-yard line, the Bulls put the game away by driving 18 yards for the game’s final touchdown.
“You create your own luck,” Johnson said. “You’ve got to make plays.”
The list of plays that Tech rued after the game was not short. Most notably, Tech gave up two kickoff returns for touchdowns in the first quarter on back-to-back returns. USF returner Terrence Horne burned the Jackets with returns of 98 and 97 yards, part of a 31-point first quarter.
“When the contain guys and the force guys are on the same level, it’s never a good thing,” Johnson said. “And then they went out and did it again.”
According to the NCAA record book, it was only the 25th time a player has returned two kickoffs for touchdowns in a game. Presumably, the number of players who did it on back-to-back kickoffs is smaller.
“That’s the first time I’ve seen it in 40 years, (returns for touchdowns) back-to-back,” said Johnson, who was not excited to witness history.
A-back Qua Searcy, the hero of Tech’s 2016 win over Georgia, contributed his own critical mistake in the fourth quarter. With Tech ahead 38-35 with just under eight minutes to play in the fourth quarter, Searcy took a toss from Marshall on a third-and-3 from the USF 19-yard line. As he angled to the sideline, Searcy was stripped by safety Bentlee Sanders, resulting in a turnover.
“All we’ve got to do is take it in, and we’re going back up 10 again,” Johnson said. “Got to hold onto the ball.”
USF took the lead with a 10-play, 88-yard drive, giving up 57 rushing yards to quarterback Blake Barnett in which the Tech defense failed to keep an eye on him on a scramble and two read-option keepers.
“Everybody wants to make a play,” nose tackle Kyle Cerge-Henderson said. “That’s just the way of the game. But sometimes you’ve got to have guys who are willing to sacrifice instead of worrying about trying to make a play. That’s really what was going on with that quarterback thing.”
Wasted in the defeat were two sacks by Cerge-Henderson playing in his hometown, an 81-yard touchdown catch by A-back Clinton Lynch, admirable play by quarterback Tobias Oliver in place of Marshall and an interception by safety Tariq Carpenter. A toe injury sidelined Marshall in the third quarter, and Oliver finished the drive with a touchdown. He then led two more touchdown drives – the three possessions consisted only of run plays – before Marshall replaced him on the next series to convert a third-and-9 with a 21-yard completion to Lynch. It was the drive that ended with Searcy’s fumble.
The Jackets also were trying to withstand the loss of B-back KirVonte Benson (lower-body injury) and disqualifications of Campbell and linebacker David Curry for targeting. Curry will miss the first half of next week’s game, the ACC opener against Pittsburgh.
“We just had a hiccup with the fumble,” Marshall said. “You don’t have that fumble, we go down and score and we’d be having a totally different conversation right now. That’s just how the game goes, though.”
For the Jackets, it’s gone that way far more often than they’d like.