Miami entered the game ranked second nationally in total defense at 264.7 yards per game. With the help of 73 passing yards, the Jackets finished at 304 yards on a mere 57 plays.
Because of the low number of plays, “It wasn’t going to be a pretty stat game,” Johnson said, but he liked the one that counted: 27-21.
The Jackets exploited Miami’s speed and aggressiveness with play fakes and counter runs against the flow of the play. On the opening drive, quarterback TaQuon Marshall found wide receiver Jalen Camp wide open dragging right to left across the middle for a 20-yard gain and a third-down pickup after Marshall faked a toss to the right.
Marshall’s 28-yard scoring run to finish the first drive was an option keeper in which he ran right and then cut it back left right through the space vacated by linebacker Michael Pinckney when he charged Marshall at the snap, only to have Marshall barley elude him.
On the Jackets’ touchdown drive that put them up 27-14 in the third quarter, the three big plays in the drive – an 11-yard run by Marshall, a 13-yard run up the middle by B-back Jerry Howard and the 31-yard scoring pass from Marshall to wide receiver Brad Stewart – were run off play fakes or against the flow of the play.
“I think that one of the things going into the game plan,” Marshall said. “We knew they were fast guys. We knew they were going to be big and fast so I just think we tried to use some misdirection things and I caught ’em off guard a little bit. I think it worked in our favor.”
The ghosts of 2017 may be gone for good. For the second week in a row, the Jackets were in a game that fit the pattern of their demise last season, losses in which they gave up two-score leads by failing to execute on both offense and defense. Tech did it four times last season and again against South Florida in the second game of the season.
Against North Carolina last week, the Jackets led 28-10 before the Tar Heels rallied to tie it at 28. After a turnover gave UNC the ball with a chance to take the lead, safety Tariq Carpenter came through with an interception that the offense converted into a go-ahead touchdown, and then defensive end Anree Saint-Amour ended the next UNC possession with another interception, after which kicker Wesley Wells put the game out of reach with a field goal in the final minute.
Saturday night, Tech went up 27-14 with 5:27 left in the third quarter and kept that margin until the Hurricanes drove 95 yards for a touchdown that cut the lead to 27-21 with 6:53 left in the game.
Miami had all three timeouts remaining, and a stop or turnover would give the Hurricanes the opportunity to spoil the night. Sure enough, Tech faced a third-and-6 just three plays into the drive. But Marshall hung in the pocket and Camp, struggling to get space, broke too the middle.
Marshall read Camp and delivered an on-target pass for a 22-yard gain and a first down before being hit. Johnson called it a “huge” throw. Marshall gave credit to Camp, crediting him with making the biggest play of the night.
“Because if he doesn’t make that play, then we’ve got to punt and they get the ball back with momentum, so you never know what happens from there,” Marshall said.
The play recalled a previous shortcoming from last year’s gut-punch loss to the Hurricanes, one of the come-from-ahead defeats. In it, Marshall threw a similar third-down pass across the middle to Stewart in the closing minutes, a play that, had it been successful, may well have sealed the Jackets’ upset bid. But it was slightly high and Stewart was unable to hold on, Tech punted and Miami drove for the game-winning field goal.
“Same situation this year to ice the game,” Marshall said. “It was nervewracking going into the play. I just knew that we had to have something happen, something to go our way. I think that was the thing to go our way since we didn’t have the punt go our way that hit off Nate (Cottrell).”
After Camp’s catch, Tech picked up two more third downs to bleed out the clock – a third-and-2 in which Marshall used decisive blocks from right guard Connor Hansen, Howard and A-back Clinton Lynch to slip through the line on a keeper, and then a third-and-4 in which the Jackets again caught Miami flowing with the pre-snap A-back motion and Howard followed center Kenny Cooper for an 11-yard gain with just under three minutes to play.
The 6:43 possession turned out to be the longest of the night.
Big night for Jalen Johnson
Linebacker Jalen Johnson played perhaps his best game of the season with nine tackles, which tied his career high set last Saturday against North Carolina and two for loss. From his Stinger linebacker spot, Johnson did a good job recognizing plays and fighting off blocks to get to the ball.
One of his best plays of the game was in the second quarter on a tunnel screen to start a Miami drive in the second quarter. Johnson read the play as it developed and securely wrapped up speedy receiver Jeff Thomas for a one-yard loss in open space.
“I’m just trying to focus on playing hard, playing fast,” Johnson said. I’m just focused on film, trying to learn before the game even starts, to know what they’re trying to do, what their tendencies are.”
Johnson’s progress this season has in a way mirrored the defense’s in its first season with new coordinator Nate Woody. Not only did Johnson have to learn a new defense, but also a new position, moving from safety to outside linebacker. Further, he had to do it without the benefit of spring practice, having missed it due to injury. But he’s gradually gained familiarity with his new position and scheme, and games like Saturday’s have been the result.
Big night in kicking game
Tech’s special-teams unit, aside from one perhaps unavoidable mistake, helped win the night for the Jackets, a contribution that hasn’t always been provided but was difference-making Saturday. In the first quarter, Tariq Carpenter made one of the biggest plays of the game with a forced fumble of returner DeeJay Dallas after Tech’s first touchdown that was recovered by Ajani Kerr.
Against Miami’s stingy defense, it gave the Jackets a much-needed short field, and it turned into a touchdown for a 14-7 lead that the Jackets never gave up. Tech got a gift later on when Jeff Thomas fumbled Pressley Harvin’s punt, recovered by Juanyeh Thomas to give the Jackets the ball inside the Miami red zone, a stolen possession that led to a Wesley Wells field goal.
Wells made two field-goal tries, from 38 and 23 yards, to stay perfect on field goals (3-for-3) and was 3-for-3 on point-after tries to likewise stay blemish-free (35-for-35).
Harvin hit two bombs – one of which after he leapt to bring down a high snap – that netted 49.3 yards and flipped the field.
“I told somebody earlier he might be the best punter in the country and we don’t ever hardly use him, but (Saturday) he had to punt and he was huge,” Johnson said.
Tech is now sixth nationally in net punting at 42.3 yards per kick after finishing 29th last season. For the sake of context, Tech was 65th and 97th in net punting in the two seasons previous to his arrival.
Tech was able to overcome its own special-teams turnover, when Cottrell was running down the field on punt return to block and Jack Spicer’s rugby-style punt hit him in the hand, a fumble that Miami recovered at the Tech 30. It turned into a touchdown just before the end of the half.
Tech also gave up a 52-yard kickoff return. On the other hand, while the Jackets’ return game didn’t produce a big play, it also didn’t turn the ball over on a return, which, as Tech has seen against Virginia Tech and now Miami, is no sure thing.
Tech cornerback Tre Swilling had a night. After he was spun around on the opening play of the game and gave up a 27-yard pass from N’Kosi Perry to Jeff Thomas, Swilling recovered, breaking up two downfield throws and providing tight coverage on a third deep ball into the end zone.
On the first, Swilling leapt high with Thomas on a third-and-8 pass in the second quarter to deflect the pass. Later in the quarter, with the Miami starting its possession from the Tech 43-yard line, Perry took a deep shot to wide receiver Lawrence Cager. The tall wideout had a step on Swilling as he ran to the post, but Swilling recovered and batted the ball away on what could have been a touchdown.
On Miami’s final touchdown drive, Swilling had tight coverage on Dee Wiggins on a throw into the end zone from 41 yards out, helping cause an incompletion and requiring the Hurricanes to expend more time to get into the end zone on what proved their last possession of the game.
“The start of the season, it was kind of slow,” Swilling said. “I had not as many targets as I’ve had the second half of the season. It’s kind of what I want. I want a game that has a lot of action.”
During the second half, Tech All-Americans present at the game were introduced on the field, a group that included his father Pat and Pat’s cousin Ken Swilling. After they were announced, Tre came off the sideline to give them both a hug.
“That was amazing,” Tre Swilling said. “Not many people get to come in a stadium and see pictures of their family members around and on the walls. Just being able to have that inspiration every single day and see them get recognized for it is just tremendous. That’s why I came to Georgia Tech, to be able to play in that environment and to be able to continue that legacy and also create my own, just add to it and just keep going, make the Swilling name proud.”
Georgia Tech bowl eligible but out of Coastal race