Just an incredible, memorable night for quarterback Tobias Oliver. In his first career start, he led his team to a blowout win with a superlative individual performance in one of the more fearsome home-field advantages in college football. It called to mind TaQuon Marshall’s starting debut against Tennessee last season (44 carries, 249 yards, five touchdowns) as well as Matthew Jordan’s in the same venue (32 carries, 121 yards, two touchdowns).
“Tobias was on his grind (Thursday),” B-back Jordan Mason said. “I don’t know what kicked into him. I don’t know if he had some weenies before or something. I don’t know what he had, but my boy was showing out (Thursday).”
He finished with 40 carries for 215 yards and three touchdowns with a style that was at turns slippery, head-on, patient and explosive.
“It’s fantastic,” left guard Parker Braun said of Oliver’s running style. “To see consistent 6-yard gains, there’s nothing better than that.”
In Tech’s records, only six players (and one quarterback, Marshall) have run for more yards in a game.
“He’s quick and fast and hard-nosed, and he can run all those follow plays and all those keeps, and he played his tail off,” coach Paul Johnson said.
It was a game that anyone associated with Georgia Tech will remember for a long time.
“It was fun,” Oliver said. “This is what you play for. This is what you look forward to in coming to play college football. It was amazing.”
Powerful play by offensive line
The Jackets’ offensive line is due no small measure of credit for the 465 rushing yards cranked out against the Hokies. From left tackle to right tackle, Zach Quinney, Braun, Kenny Cooper, Connor Hansen and Andrew Marshall, consistently pushed back the Hokies’ line, cleared paths on Oliver’s quarterback follows and made punishing blocks at the second level.
Tech’s A-backs and B-backs were aggressive in seeking out Hokies to square up, and the wide receivers, often blocking in closed quarters when they were drawn in close to the offensive line, were effective at sealing defenders on runs to the perimeter.
“They manhandled us (Thursday) when it’s all said and done, I thought,” Hokies defensive coordinator Bud Foster said. “I talked to Paul afterwards and I told him, ‘Hey, great job. You guys kicked our tail.’”
After suffering a foot injury in spring practice, Cooper was the full-time center for the first time this season and often paired with Braun on blocks up the middle.
Here’s a testament to the Jackets’ consistent play on the line. In 78 plays, Georgia Tech had just two negative-yardage plays. Further, the Jackets amassed their 465 rushing yards (and zero passing yards) despite not producing a play longer than 16 yards. (It was just the third time in Johnson’s tenure that the offense didn’t create a play of 20 yards.) It was just an unabated flow of positive runs that produced first downs.
The Jackets’ 35 first downs set a school record for the modern era. The previous record was 34, against Virginia in 2000.
They did it with a fairly simple game plan, a steady diet of quarterback follows, sweeps, tosses and double options.
“It helps so much to really get us all on the same page,” Braun said. “When you try to do too much, you’re just not going to have success. But when we simplify and come together and get everyone on the same page, that’s when we have the most success.”
Like the games against Louisville and Bowling Green, chalking up the overwhelming performance to an opponent that was young and inexperienced would be easy. From his perch in the visiting team radio booth, Tech analyst and former All-ACC center Sean Bedford saw it differently.
“I think them not having the amount of experience you typically expect out of a Bud Foster defense probably contributed to some extent, but I don’t think any of the Virginia Tech defenses that I faced would have been able to hang with this offense (Thursday),” Bedford said. “These guys just came out and executed as well as you could have possibly hoped them to.”
The turning point in the game arrived midway through the second quarter. Georgia Tech faced a fourth-and-10, trailing 21-14 and facing the possibility of going down two touchdowns with the Hokies’ sizzling offense about to return to the field. After a 5-yard penalty on the Hokies for running into the kicker and then a Jackets false start, punter Pressley Harvin got away a punt to Sean Savoy, who failed to bring in the punt at the Hokies 9-yard line. Jalen Johnson, covering the punt, had the ball bounce practically right into his arms, securing possession for the Jackets’ 12-yard line.
“We did a good job getting down there, and it just bounced off his face mask and right into my hands,” Johnson said. “That was pretty awesome.”
Georgia Tech needed two plays to get into the end zone to tie the score at 21-21 at the 6:51 mark.
“That’s a big special-teams play,” defensive end Anree Saint-Amour said. “Whenever you can get the ball that close to the end zone and score off of it, everybody’s hyped about that.”
Georgia Tech took control by producing a three-and-out from Virginia Tech, and the Jackets scored again on the next possession for a 28-21 lead going into halftime. The Jackets scored on their opening possession of the second half and was never challenged after that.
“After that play, it just kind of went downhill after that,” Hokies offensive lineman Kyle Chung told the Roanoke (Va.) Times.
Ironically, Virginia Tech coach Justin Fuente had put Savoy in to try to shake up the punt return, a move that Johnson also tried with the Jackets’ punt-return unit, sometimes using Juanyeh Thomas in place of Brad Stewart. The gaffe served as a reminder, perhaps, that the first priority in punt return is always retaining possession, a skill that Stewart has ably demonstrated for the past three seasons.
Georgia Tech won by avoiding mistakes. The Jackets didn’t turn the ball over and fumbled once. They were hit with six penalties, unusually high, but were able to play through them.
“Johnson always says the best way to win a game is to not lose it,” Braun said.
Beyond the fumbled punt, the Hokies put themselves in a hole in the same way that the Jackets often had in their four losses. After scoring touchdowns on their first three possessions, the Hokies went three-and-out on the fourth possession when quarterback Ryan Willis dropped a shotgun snap on third-and-3 and could scramble for only two yards.
On Virginia Tech’s next possession, with the score 28-21 in Georgia Tech’s favor and the Jackets getting the ball to start the second half, the Hokies were trying to punch in a tying score before the end of the first half. Willis’ third-down pass to Tre Turner wasn’t perfect, but catchable, but Turner couldn’t secure it for what would have been a first down. The Hokies punted.
On the Jackets’ first possession of the second half, they faced a third-and-14 on their 34. Oliver scrambled for 13 yards, which would have put Georgia Tech in fourth-and-1 in its own end. However, the Hokies removed the drama when Whip linebacker Khalil Ladler made a helmet-to-helmet hit on Oliver for a targeting penalty for 15 extra yards, an automatic first down and Ladler’s ejection.
Georgia Tech went on to get in the end zone for a 35-21 third-quarter lead that went a long way to sealing the outcome.
Jackets defense picks up after slow start
After getting gouged for three touchdowns in as many possessions to start the game, Georgia Tech abruptly turned the water off on the Hokies. Over the next five possessions, Virginia Tech gained 45 yards and picked up one first down and punted all five times.
“(Coaches) kept telling us, ‘Hey, we just need to go get a stop, and once we get a stop, we’ll be able to go on,” Saint-Amour said. “That’s what we did.”
Freshman linebacker Charlie Thomas led the Jackets with a career-high nine tackles. Saint-Amour continued his sterling play with two tackles for loss. One of them particularly helped secure the win. With Georgia Tech ahead 35-21 in the third quarter, Virginia Tech faced a third-and-2 on its 33 and called what looked like a keeper for Willis, who took the shotgun snap and ran right behind a running back as a leader blocker to the edge. However, Saint-Amour smoked the right guard at the snap and chased down Willis from behind for a four-yard loss.
The Jackets were a mess in the first three possessions, missing tackles, not staying with receivers, getting out of their rush lanes.
“It definitely looked like a shootout in the beginning,” Saint-Amour said. “But I felt like the defense just needed to relax. Everybody needed to relax. We were kind of up on our toes a little bit, but we didn’t get ’em planted in the beginning. That’s something we need to do better.”