It was not necessarily the best time for a change in plans, particularly one based on a hunch. There were 35 seconds remaining in the first half, and Georgia Tech faced a first-and-goal on the Louisville 2-yard line with the ball on the left hashmark. Holding a 24-14 lead, the Yellow Jackets direly wanted to punch in another score.
About 15 seconds remained on the play clock when quarterback TaQuon Marshall approached the line and surveyed the Louisville defense. The Cardinals had jammed eight defenders in the box with two cornerbacks spread out wide against Tech wide receivers Malachi Carter and Stephen Dolphus and safety TreSean Smith lined up opposite A-back Qua Searcy in the right slot. Assessing the formation, Marshall decided to change the play from a midline option into the teeth of the defense to a toss to the perimeter.
Twelve seconds were left on the play clock when Marshall casually stepped away from center and toward Searcy, waving him to the standard A-back spot on the outside hip of left tackle Zach Quinney. Searcy brought Smith with him, a ninth defender in the box. Seven seconds remained when Searcy set himself, and Marshall still had to communicate the check to the offense. He got his hands under center with about four seconds left.
Finally, with one second left, as Searcy arced behind him from left to right in tail motion, Marshall took the snap from center Kenny Cooper. Marshall tossed to Searcy, who had a running start on the nine box defenders to the perimeter and just needed one lead block from A-back Clinton Lynch to saunter into the end zone. An extra point put the Jackets up 31-14.
“Running over (from the slot), I was like, Man, what is he doing?” Searcy said. “And he checked to toss, so I was pretty excited about that.”
That play was not the only reason why Searcy sang Marshall’s praises late Friday night following Tech’s 66-31 demolition of Louisville at Cardinal Stadium. After spotty play in Tech’s first four games, in which he was inconsistent with option reads, put pitches on the ground and was making mistakes in the passing game, Marshall seems to have found a groove in the past two games.
“When he’s calm, everyone’s calm and everything is fine,” Searcy said.
After Tech’s loss to Clemson in the fourth game, coach Paul Johnson promised that fundamental play at quarterback would improve with his increased involvement. While the level of competition in the past two games has not matched what Marshall experienced in the losses to South Florida, Pittsburgh and Clemson, the difference in him seems clear. Marshall’s reads have improved, he has cut sharply downfield on keepers and, after Tech had fumbled 14 times in four games, the Jackets have had only two such miscues in the past two games.
“I’m having a good time,” Marshall said. “Two good games, back to back. I think this is the best I’ve played all season. It’s good to be back, to have fun while you’re playing.”
“That’s the way he should play,” Johnson said. “He’s a senior quarterback that’s played. In the last two games, he’s been dialed in and really good.”
Beyond working on Marshall’s technical play, Johnson also has addressed his quarterback’s psyche, reminding him to have fun.
“I think early on, sometimes maybe he was trying to do too much,” Johnson said. “Let it come to you, let it happen.”
Johnson was in Marshall’s ear early during a timeout Friday. On Tech’s first play, the Jackets lined up in the wrong formation and Marshall misread his receiver, throwing way off target, a mistake he had made previously.
“And he got frustrated with himself, and I said, ‘Dude, we made the first down. Just relax. Just play,’” Johnson said. “And so when he gets in that groove, he’s a really good player.”
With Louisville showing a variety of fronts, Marshall frequently checked the offense out of one play into another. That included the switch on the goal line to the toss to Searcy, which Marshall said was prompted by “a weird feeling” about the situation.
“I didn’t really expect it myself,” Marshall said. “I know we got to the sideline, guys were like, ‘Man, you must have been playing Madden or something.’”
Besides the checks, he executed the option effectively. He ran the ball with his combination of burst and toughness, gaining 175 rushing yards (the second highest total of his career) and scoring two touchdowns in a little less than three quarters of play.
“Our quarterback was playing well and he was doing a nice job getting us in the right plays against the right fronts, and the kids played hard and executed,” Johnson said.
The challenge increases considerably Saturday at Bobby Dodd Stadium. Duke gave Marshall and Tech trouble last year in a 43-20 Blue Devils win. Virginia Tech follows after that. Marshall’s intention: Just play.
“That’s what I’ve been trying to do the past couple weeks,” Marshall said. “I’m going to try to do the same thing next week, see what happens.”
More from Friday’s game:
Steve Hummer: All Tech does is score, and gallop past Louisville
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