Georgia Tech’s 28-26 win over N.C. State on Thursday night increased the Yellow Jackets’ win total from a measly two to a less-measly three. But for players and coaches who scraped out the win, it may not be forgotten for a long time, a well-earned achievement in a trying season.
Five things to know from the game:
Tech’s win was quite nearly a loss. And beating N.C. State at home is not nearly as significant as beating Virginia on the road would have been two weeks ago. Regardless, the Jackets’ effort and execution was a show of mettle and the culture that coach Geoff Collins has sought to create.
» MARK BRADLEY: Collins earns another selling point
Five days previous, Tech played its worst game of the season, lacking energy and focus and paying the price in a 45-0 home loss to Virginia Tech. Players were suitably embarrassed and responded with better practice in a short week and played with inspiration against a team playing for bowl eligibility.
The offense sufficiently grasped N.C. State’s “stack” defense, gaining a season-high 395 yards. A worn-down defense gave up 457 yards, but came up with enough plays in the red zone. They relied on the likes of defensive ends Jordan Domineck and Curtis Ryans, both of whom scarcely played in the first half of the season but who now play regularly because of injuries and their development.
“It was a collective loss last week,” wide receiver Malachi Carter said. “Things happened on both sides of the ball, so we really just came back to improve in every aspect of the game – throwing, passing, catching, tackling, just everything. We came out (Thursday) and tried to clean all that up, and obviously, you saw the results.”
James Graham’s growth continues
After throwing two interceptions and getting pulled against Virginia Tech, quarterback James Graham repeatedly made throws and runs that few quarterbacks can make. The redshirt freshman also showed that there’s still plenty of room to grow.
His three touchdowns – two to Ahmarean Brown and one to Tobias Oliver – were against tight coverage, each placed where only his target could catch it. He also completed a 20-yarder down the middle to Carter, who had a safety draped all over him, placing it high and away from De’Von Graves to give Carter a chance at it.
On draws and read-option keepers, he showed speed and elusiveness that few quarterbacks possess. On a fourth-and-1 play before to his 13-yard touchdown pass to Oliver – the first career touchdown catch for the former quarterback – Graham kept on a read-option play. Safety Tanner Ingle had a clear shot at him in the backfield, but Graham just hit the brakes, letting Ingle fly by, to get the first down.
Graham also had a hand in two lost fumbles and, in finishing 7-for-15 passing, missed some makeable throws. On a third-and-9 in the fourth quarter, he forced a pass to wide receiver Adonicas Sanders that could have been easily intercepted and would have significantly aided N.C. State’s comeback attempt.
Graham’s talent is obvious, as are his humility and desire to improve. The combination could make the next three years intriguing to watch.
Big lift from special teams
Sometimes maligned in this space, Tech’s special-teams units did their part in helping secure victory. Two kickoff returns were taken back to the 30 and 33, both of which initiated touchdown drives. Aided by gunners Nathan Cottrell and Jaytlin Askew, Pressley Harvin and the punt team netted 50 yards, an astounding number.
When N.C. State’s Thayer Thomas dropped Harvin’s second-quarter punt, a thicket of blue jerseys converged, greatly increasing Tech’s chances of recovering, which Askew did to set up the Jackets’ third touchdown of the half.
“It’s really nice to have two elite gunners like Jaytlin and Nathan on this football team,” Collins said.
Tech managed it despite injuries necessitating multiple shifts. Collins said that he thought Omahri Jarrett played three different spots on kickoff return “and did it admirably.”
There was some poetic justice in safety Christian Campbell forcing an incomplete pass on the Wolfpack’s two-point conversion attempt with 5:17 left in the fourth quarter to try to tie the score at 28-28.
Lined up on the right side, Campbell flew past left tackle Ikem Ikwonu and pressured quarterback Devin Leary, who had tight end Cary Angeline open, into an off-target throw.
Campbell is one of the handful of seniors on the roster, a group that Collins has hailed for its leadership in aiding his transition despite its small size. Also, Campbell was disqualified from the Virginia Tech game for targeting. Against N.C. State, Campbell said he was trying to do “anything possible” to help his team.
“After I had to sit the second half last game, I kind of just had a fire under me,” Campbell said.
Linebacker David Curry on finally winning: “We’ve been waiting on it. We’ve been grinding, grinding, grinding. The feeling afterwards is a lot better than, ‘Gah, we were so close.’ It’s an amazing feeling. But we’ve got a lot of stuff to keep working on.”
Running back Jordan Mason, who gained 141 rushing yards: “My O-line, my first two long runs, it was just wide open, like butter. All I had to do was run.”
Collins on plans for the next week leading to the Georgia game: “Obviously, we’ll go out recruiting (Friday) because that is the lifeblood of our football program. Obviously, no specifics, but that’s what we’ll do. Saturday, start getting a head start on the film for our next opponent, who’s a really good football team and come in on Sunday and get ready – preparation, Thanksgiving week, all of those things – and play a team in-state.”
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