Terrence Horne said following Saturday’s Georgia Tech-South Flordai game that his fastest time in the 100-meter dash in high school was 10.29 seconds. Georgia Tech’s kickoff coverage team would likely not be surprised.
A freshman playing in the second game of his career, Horne put himself in the NCAA record books, and brought the Yellow Jackets with him. Horne ran back two consecutive kickoffs for touchdowns Saturday, becoming the 25th player in FBS history to take two kickoffs all the way back in a single game. No player or team has ever returned three in a game.
On a day worth forgetting for Tech, Horne actually almost did score on another return, on the opening kickoff of the game. Only a diving tackle by Ajani Kerr likely kept Horne from a touchdown on that return.
“Unbelievable speed,” USF coach Charlie Strong said. “If he can get to the edge on you, he’s going to take the ball the distance. They’re not going to catch him.”
“When the contain guys and the force guys are on the same level, it’s never a good thing,” coach Paul Johnson said. “And then they went out and did it again.”
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Depending on one’s perspective, execution or breakdowns created Horne’s game-breaking plays. On the first score, kicker Shawn Davis sent his kickoff to Horne’s right, where he caught the ball on the 2-yard line inches up against the sideline. It seemed an advantageous placement for Tech, as it could pin him against the boundary.
However, Horne patiently waited for his blocks, even stutter stepping as he angled to the middle of the field. His teammates cooperated, walling off the Jackets with aggressive blocks.
Near the 20-yard line by the numbers, Jordan Domineck was driven laterally to the middle of the field by a double team. About five yards toward the near sideline, Charlie Thomas was blocked in the direction opposite of Domineck, creating a lane for Horne as he built up speed. (Thomas appeared to be held as he tried to disengage from a USF blocker.)
Coming down the sideline to Horne’s right, Zamari Walton and Christian Campbell tried to get to him through the traffic, but were too late. Walton managed to get a hand on him, the only Tech player to touch him on the play.
By the time he was to the USF 30, he was home free, accelerating away with the speed he used to win a Florida high-school state championship in the 100-meter dash earlier this year.
On the second return, Davis caught the ball at the right hashmark at the 3-yard line with a sweep of Tech players converging on him. As he ran straight upfield, Horne’s options were closed off going up the middle or to the right.
However, there was daylight to his left. Horne slammed on the brakes at the 19 and took a 90-degree turn to the left. Just ahead of him, teammate Deangelo Antoine delivered a punishing block on Jarett Cole, who was filling the gap to Horne’s left, spilling him to the turf as Horne ran past.
Horne was, in fact, following Antoine.
“He told me after the first (kickoff), when I got tripped up a little bit, he told me to slow down and to follow him,” Horne said.
From there, Horne raced the Jackets to the sideline. Davis and Thomas both appeared to have a chance to cut him off, but their pursuit angles crossed, tripping up Davis and slightly impeding Thomas.
Tech’s failure to cover kickoffs effectively is a continuation from last season. Tech ranked 118th in opponent kickoff return average at 24.48 yards per return, a rate that include a 92-yard runback for a score by Virginia. Of Tech opponents’ 44 returns last season, six went 40 yards or more, tied for the most in FBS.
In Harrison Butker’s touchback-laden four seasons (2013-16), Tech gave up only four such returns, three of them in his freshman season. Only one kickoff was returned for a touchdown.
In 2012, the season before Butker’s arrival, Tech gave up 11 returns of 40 yards or more, most in FBS.
Following Horne’s second score, Tech was far more effective. Davis dribbled the next kickoff, which was returned by a forward player to the USF 33. The farthest he got on the remaining three kickoffs was the USF 26. By then, though, the damage had been done.