In the end, the result of Georgia Tech coach Geoff Collins’ first game was about what most figured, a runaway defeat. The Yellow Jackets lost 52-14 to No. 1 Clemson Thursday night as the Tigers opened their defense of their second national championship in three years.
Still, the one-sided game revealed details and seeming truths about the Yellow Jackets at the start of a year of transition. Here are five of them.
1. Tre Swilling looks like a breakout player
On a field loaded with four- and five-star talent wearing orange and white, Tech cornerback Tre Swilling more than held his own. Swilling was a problem for Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence from the start, breaking up a slant route on third down on the opening drive.
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He made an athletic play to break up another pass later in the first quarter, though the play was wiped out by a penalty. And he made one of the big plays of the night for Tech, jumping in front of a Lawrence pass to the sideline that he returned 41 yards. It snapped Lawrence’s streak of 181 consecutive passes without an interception.
A starter as a redshirt freshman last season, Swilling appears to have made a big step forward, as had been anticipated through spring and the preseason.
“It felt good,” Swilling said. “Just being able to go in practice and just preparing for that moment – to be ready for that moment and to take advantage of it felt pretty good.”
2. Competition at quarterback
Collins and offensive coordinator Dave Patenaude have more to learn about their quarterbacks. Starter Tobias Oliver was hit-and-miss in his work, showing off the playmaking ability that he flashed last season as TaQuon Marshall’s backup but also having trouble in the pass game. Lucas Johnson played one series in a two-minute situation at the end of the first half, going 0-for-2 in a three-and-out possession.
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James Graham came on for the final three possessions, leading the Jackets to one touchdown by throwing two downfield strikes. One was down the seam to slot receiver Josh Blancato for 34 yards, the other a pinpoint delivery to freshman slot receiver Ahmarean Brown in the corner of the end zone for a 28-yard touchdown pass.
“We’ll just keep working,” Collins said. “They have three unique sets of skills, they’re great competitors, they’re great friends and we’ll just keep finding ways to help them move the offense.”
3. Some good stuff from the defense
The score didn’t really reflect it, and the yardage (632 yards, 8.0 yards per play) didn’t really, either. But the Tech defense, which returned three starters from the 2018 unit and has a new scheme and coordinator, showed signs of promise.
The tackling was largely solid, with Jackets defenders coming en masse at the ball. Defensive coordinator Andrew Thacker rotated liberally to keep legs fresh, giving snaps to no fewer than 27 players.
The relative difficulty that Lawrence had – completing 13 of 23 attempts for 168 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions – could be chalked up to the coverage challenges that the Jackets presented.
“I give them credit,” Clemson co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott said. “They disguised a lot of their coverages. They did some things a little bit different than maybe what we saw on the Temple video.”
4. Lots of mistakes
There was plenty to correct. There were two costly fumbles – one by Juanyeh Thomas on a punt return and the other on a mishandled exchange between Oliver and running back Jamious Griffin – that gave Clemson the ball deep in Tech’s end and led directly to touchdowns.
“It was our first time together in a game running a new offense,” Oliver said. “Some things looked better than others, but we’ll learn week by week.”
The Jackets fielded nine kickoffs and didn’t advance one past their 25-yard line. Swilling’s interception set up a first-and-goal from the 2, and Tech failed to score, with Oliver throwing into traffic for an interception on fourth down.
The defense gave up a 90-yard touchdown run by Tigers running back Travis Etienne on a misdirection play and a 62-yard pass play from Lawrence to receiver Tee Higgins when the Tigers max protected against a six-man blitz.
“There’s some learning experiences, obviously, that we will take away from this and we’ll work on that as we go forward throughout the weekend and get ready for next week,” Collins said.
5. Not a great opponent for a coaching debut
For Tech fans left disconsolate by the score, it is worth remembering that these were far from the ideal circumstances. A finely tuned offense loaded with NFL-bound playmakers and a talented defense were playing at home in front of a raucous crowd against a team with an all-new coaching staff, depth issues on both lines and a lot of young players across the board.
It was almost inevitable that there would be mistakes, and, against this opponent, they were going to be costly. Had Tech somehow managed to score from first-and-goal from the 2-yard line, pick up a fourth-and-inches and not lose fumbles twice inside its 20, the game likely wouldn’t have been a runaway.
After the game, Collins took solace in the effort he saw.
“They kept competing all the way through, and if you have things like that, you have something to build on,” he said.
Clemson co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott noticed the same, saying that Tech’s effort was unflagging even with minutes left in the game.
“They’re going to be fine,” he said.