Last Wednesday, Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson called Saturday’s game against Pittsburgh “one we need to win.” Saturday afternoon, he found himself reciting a similar refrain to his comments after the South Florida game the previous week: “Just frustrated and disappointed.”
Tech lost its ACC opener 24-19 to the Panthers after falling behind 21-0 in the first half. A review of the happenings at Heinz Field:
TaQuon Marshall struggles
Quarterback TaQuon Marshall wasn’t the reason the Jackets lost, but the team’s offensive captain didn’t deliver a winning performance, either. He ran for tough yards and finished with 103 rushing yards on 28 carries with two touchdowns, his second consecutive 100-yard rushing game.
He accounted for 11 first downs either running or throwing, including an on-target downfield throw for 20 yards to wide receiver Jalen Camp that set up kicker Brenton King’s unsuccessful field goal try at the end of the first half. He also threw two downfield passes to Camp and Brad Stewart that were imperfect but catchable that neither secured.
However, Marshall also missed badly on a fourth-and-5 in the second quarter, misread a pass play to Camp in the fourth quarter, resulting in an interception, and made an off-target pitch to A-back Clinton Lynch that fell to the ground. (Lynch recovered.)
“I didn’t play well enough to help the guys out a lot (Saturday),” Marshall said. “It’s frustrating.”
Up-and-down kicking game
Tech successfully addressed its most glaring flaw from the South Florida game, its kickoff coverage. Johnson changed personnel on the unit after it gave up two returns for touchdowns to the Bulls, adding defensive backs Jaytlin Askew, Kaleb Oliver and Lamont Simmons and Stinger linebacker Jalen Johnson.
But the biggest improvement was kicker Shawn Davis, who sailed his first three kickoffs into the end zones for touchbacks. Davis also executed a textbook onside kick at game’s end, but the Jackets were unable to recover.
However, kicker Brenton King had two errant kicks later in the game, missing short and wide from 52 yards at the end of the first half and then missing an extra-point try off the upright. It was the second extra-point-try that Tech has missed this season.
Highs and lows on defense
Production from the Jack linebacker was not robust. Tech’s three Jacks – Victor Alexander, Jaquan Henderson and Jordan Domineck – combined for one solo tackle and two assisted tackles in 54 defensive snaps.
In three games, the three have 15 tackles, none for loss. Jack is considered a playmaking position, although part of the shortage in big plays may be the frequency with which offenses slide protection to the Jack’s side, as it usually is rushing off the edge, which can create opportunities for the Stinger linebacker, which is opposite the Jack. The two primary Stingers, Jalen Johnson and Christian Campbell, have a total of 17 tackles with two tackles for loss thus far.
One defensive player who did show well in the loss was defensive end Anree Saint-Amour, who was consistent in penetrating gaps. He finished with four tackles – one for loss – and two quarterback hurries.
Putting the ball on the ground
The Jackets hampered their efforts against Pittsburgh with three fumbles, one each by A-backs Clinton Lynch and Qua Searcy and another by Marshall, all seniors and returning starters. It was Searcy’s fumble against South Florida that thwarted the Jackets’ attempt at a go-ahead drive with about eight minutes remaining in the game. That doesn’t count a lost fumble by Marshall on a play that was negated by a facemask penalty against Pitt.
Tech recovered two of the three fumbles, fortune it can’t count on going forward. And even if the Jackets were charmed in that way, fumbles typically kill plays, complicating attempts to pick up first downs and extend drives.
The Jackets have now fumbled six times in three games, including two each by Searcy and Marshall.
Road gets much, much tougher
While Tech outplayed Pitt in the second half of the game, it was a result that left Johnson and players predictably downcast. Guard Parker Braun was especially at his limit after the game, assessing his frustration level as “pretty high” and responding to a question about if there were any positives to take from the game with “Nope.”
Good feeling and confidence are not surging going into Saturday’s game with No. 2 Clemson, a national championship contender, a team that has controlled the Jackets in each of the past three meetings and has a defensive line touted as possibly the best of all-time.
To have a chance, Tech will have to demonstrate near-perfect execution in all three phases, which is an aspirational expectation considering that the Jackets failed to do so in three games against opponents far inferior to the Tigers.
Upsets happen all the time – a Syracuse team that finished 4-8 gave Clemson its only regular-season defeat last season – and the Jackets’ focus and adrenaline will likely be peaking Saturday afternoon. But, given Tech’s first three games, it’s hard to have confidence that the Tigers are about to be ambushed by a well-trained band of marauders.