Georgia Tech fans could find plenty of encouragement in their team's 33-28 loss at Virginia Saturday. But, as coach Geoff Collins' first season reaches the final three games, there's still plenty yet to improve.
A closer look at Saturday’s defeat:
1. Special teams misses the mark
In a game in which Tech was given an 8.7 percent chance of winning (ESPN), special teams did not help the effort. Kicker Wesley Wells, attempting his first field goal of the season, missed from 30 yards. It was his first missed field-goal try after his 9-for-9 freshman season.
After Tech took a 21-17 lead with 44 seconds left in the first half, the Jackets squibbed the kickoff, which Tavares Kelly returned 40 yards to midfield, setting up a go-ahead touchdown. Collins said that "I thought we relaxed" on the play and called it the one play he wanted back.
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At the end of Virginia’s first possession of the second half, punt returner Juanyeh Thomas fair caught a punt at the Tech 2-yard line, a mistake that Collins said was his fault. Punter Pressley Harvin bailed out Thomas by booting a 53-yard punt that gunner Nathan Cottrell covered with a tackle for a one-yard loss to flip the field.
Tech has delivered special-teams highlights, namely three blocked punts or kicks and Harvin’s fake-punt play against Miami, but the overall product has been mixed results.
2. James Graham stands out
A week after being pulled following one half of ineffective play, quarterback James Graham took a step forward Saturday, completing 15 of 22 passes for 229 yards with two touchdowns. His one interception was a mistake and helped set up a Virginia touchdown, but overall he showed poise in the pocket and threw with accuracy. He completed passes to six targets, including four to underutilized tight ends Tyler Davis and Dylan Deveney that created three first downs.
“He played really well,” Collins said of Graham. “Really proud of him.”
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One of his best plays of the day was on Tech’s second possession, when he sidestepped a safety blitz on a 2nd-and-13. Rather than tuck the ball and run, Graham stepped up in the pocket away from pressure, kept his eyes downfield and flipped a pass to wide receiver Tobias Oliver, who turned it into a career-long 37-yard reception.
“We had a great week of practice and O-line just blocked their butt off,” Graham said. “I felt comfortable overall and I knew the game plan really well this week.”
3. Offensive line shows improvement
Tech had at least one first for the season on Saturday – no sacks allowed. This for a team that had given up one sack for every 8.1 pass attempts, one of the poorest rates in FBS. UVA came into the game ranked No. 3 nationally in sacks (34) and had had at least one sack in 17 consecutive games.
Graham’s mobility to escape from pressure helped, as did playcalling that moved the pocket. For example, his 25-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Malachi Carter late in the second quarter was off a sprint-out.
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Still, Graham couldn’t complete 68 percent of his throws without effective protection, anchored by center William Lay. On Graham’s 59-yard touchdown pass to slot receiver Ahmarean Brown on the game’s opening possession, offensive tackles Jared Southers and Zach Quinney kept Virginia’s ends well wide of Graham, providing him time to throw downfield.
“It’s two back-to-back weeks where it’s an elite defensive line (following Pitt), and they just went out there and battled,” Collins said.
4. Field-position game goes to UVA
Field position continued to submarine the Jackets. Out of 11 Virginia drives, one started at the Tech 28-yard line, two at midfield and one at the Cavaliers’ 45-yard line. Those four possessions generated 23 of UVA’s 33 points. Meanwhile, without a turnover or big special-teams play, Tech’s best starting field position of the day was its 35, after the Jackets held Virginia on a fourth-and-4 in the second quarter, which led to a touchdown.
Tech’s defense was hardly without fault. Virginia converted nine of 16 third downs, didn’t turn the ball over and controlled the ball for 35:14. (An interception in the third quarter was wiped out by an offsides penalty.) The Jackets couldn’t do enough to keep quarterback Bryce Perkins from accounting for 21 first downs or touchdowns by run or pass.
But defensive coordinator Andrew Thacker’s unit was severely limited by injuries (defensive end Antwan Owens, safety Kaleb Oliver and defensive tackle Chris Martin were all out) and relied heavily on freshmen. Losing the field-position game only made the defense’s job more difficult.
5. ‘Magical moment’ at team hotel
Collins was uncharacteristically emotional in his post-game interview, and one reason was likely due to what had happened Friday night at the team hotel. Collins devoted time to honoring the team's seniors, now down to eight who dress for games after three season-ending injuries, and only six of whom made the travel roster.
Collins has often expressed his admiration for the seniors and their contributions to fostering the culture that he has tried to create and has said that while so much attention is focused on the team’s future, he remained focused on ensuring that their experience in Tech’s remaining games is the best that it can be.
Collins said that he and strength coach Lewis Caralla shared stories about the seniors’ contributions to the team.
“It was a magical moment,” linebacker David Curry said. “I mean, I came in with a lot of those guys. It almost brought me to tears listening to some of the stuff that coach (Collins) and coach Lew had to say about them. It just shows how much coach Collins cares.”
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