On his Sunday teleconference, Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson offered explanations for the two touchdowns given up on kickoffs, the defense’s struggles and his decision to return quarterback TaQuon Marshall to the game after backup Tobias Oliver had led consecutive touchdown drives in the Yellow Jackets’ 49-38 loss to South Florida.

Johnson’s frustration with the defeat was clear as the Jackets again lost a game that it led by two possessions in the fourth quarter.

“We fought back from those special-teams fiascoes to start the game and managed to get in the lead,” Johnson said “It’s just disappointing. It feels like a game we let slip away.”

» More: Paul Johnson blasts targeting calls

Johnson said that on the kickoffs, there were too many freshmen on the cover team, among other problems. There were five freshmen – none of them of the redshirt variety – on the field for Terrence Horne’s first kickoff returned for a score and four for the second.

“That’s just the bottom line,” Johnson said. “They got their tails blocked off, and then the guy who was supposed to fold under him and contain, like I said after the game, were all on the same level. They did a nice job on their return. They blocked the fool out of our guys.”

Johnson credited kicker Shawn Davis’ two kicks on the scoring plays. The first was fielded by Horne at the 2-yard line right on the sideline.

“If you can’t cover that one, you’re not going to get too many you can cover,” he said. “I thought once we had a chance to correct some of it at half, it was better in the second half.”

Johnson said that coaching and execution has to be better. Horne became just the 25th player in NCAA history to return two kickoffs for touchdowns in a game.

Tech said that defensive coordinator Nate Woody’s defense suffered from missed assignments, among other problems.

“There was a lot of missed assignments and guys that were rushing that should have been dropping and dropping that should have been rushing,” he said.

Johnson surmised that the combination of the scheme being new, South Florida’s swift tempo and Woody using a number of young players may have contributed. Linemen, he said, slanted the wrong way, “which is hard to jack up when the calls are left and right, but we managed to do it.” They also got of their assigned gaps when rushing upfield, giving quarterback Blake Barnett openings to escape the pocket for crucial gains.

“All the defenses are the same,” Johnson said. “You can’t just go out there and ball. You’ve got to stay in your gap. You can get up the field as long as you’re in your gap. But you’ve got to be in the right one.”

One possible solution, Johnson said, may be to play fewer young players.

On the offensive line, Tech may have gone the other way. Tech line coaches Mike Sewak and Ron West rarely, if ever, subbed the starting five of Zach Quinney, Parker Braun, Jahaziel Lee, Will Bryan and Andrew Marshall except for injury. Johnson said that Quinney, a redshirt freshman making his first start, played 81 snaps. The offense was on the field for 75.

“I’m sure they all got tired, and we’ve got to play more (linemen),” he said. “I talked to (the assistant coaches) in the staff room about that. That’s not very smart on our part, especially when there’s not that much difference in some of those (backup) guys. We need to play more of them.”

When Tech’s offense took the field down 42-38 with 5:08 to play, the line suffered lapses in pass protection, leading to TaQuon Marshall’s deflected pass and interception. It’s not inconceivable that fatigue could have been a factor at the end of a game in which temperatures were in the high 80’s with high humidity.

Johnson also addressed why Marshall stayed in the game after sitting out Oliver’s two touchdown drives after hurting his toe in the first drive of the opening half, a drive that Oliver completed with a touchdown.

“He’s the starting quarterback,” Johnson said of Marshall. “That’s usually what you do.”

Johnson said he saw no reason to not stick with Marshall after he came in for Oliver on a 3rd-and-9 and converted it before leading the Jackets to the USF 19 before A-back Qua Searcy lost possession on a fumble, giving the Bulls an opening to re-take the lead.

“When he went back in, the only thing I saw him do is convert a 3rd-and-9 and take the team all the way down inside their 20-yard line when we’re getting ready to score again and then we fumbled,” Johnson said. “So why would I take him out?”

When it was noted to Johnson that he had stayed with Oliver for one more series after it had been announced that Marshall was cleared to return, Johnson said that was because he put him back in the game when Marshall told him he was ready to go back in the game, indicating a difference in the timing between when Marshall was cleared and when he told Johnson he was ready to go back in.

“They told me he was good to go when he came back out, and I watched him limp around, and I wasn’t going to put him in limping, and what I was told is, ‘We’ll see what he can do,’” Johnson said. “’He can try and see what he can do.’ Well, with what we were doing offensively, I had no problem with Tobias. He’s really good at it.”

Johnson said that Marshall told him that it was on the drive that he returned for the 3rd-and-9 when he told Johnson he was ready to go back in the game.

Going back to last season, it was the fourth game in which Tech led by two possessions in the second half before losing.

“You’ve got to close out the games,” Johnson said. “It should come with experience and knowing, especially for this team the way it’s happened in the last two years. I mean, you’ve got to close ’em out. Whether that’s on the offense continuing to score or on defense getting a stop, but you’ve got to close ’em out.”

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.