Georgia Tech quarterback Tobias Oliver (8) warms up before their game against the Clemson at Memorial Stadium on the Clemson University campus in Clemson, S.C. on Thursday, August 29, 2019. Georgia Tech took the field for the first time with Geoff Collins as head coach. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

5 things to watch for in Georgia Tech-South Florida

The first game of Georgia Tech coach Geoff Collins’ tenure was a 38-point road defeat to a national championship contender. The Yellow Jackets’ chances in his second game look much better, as Tech opens its home schedule against South Florida, which also is 0-1 after losing to then-No. 19 Wisconsin on Friday.

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For Tech, it’s a chance to clean up mistakes from the 52-14 loss to Clemson on Aug. 29 and continue to progress before resuming ACC play in one month.

Here are five things to watch for Saturday afternoon at Bobby Dodd Stadium.

1. How much will Tech pass?

Segments of the fan base were disappointed when the Jackets clung to the run against Clemson, hoping to see more passing after 11 years of former coach Paul Johnson’s option offense. Tech ran 71 percent of the time against the Tigers. Collins and offensive coordinator Dave Patenaude explained the approach was a decision based on what gave Tech the best chance.

As the season unfolds, it may be that the Jackets continue to tilt to the run, given that running backs such as Jordan Mason and Jerry Howard are a strength and that the line’s ability to run block may be ahead of its pass blocking. However, against a defensive line that probably isn’t as fierce as Clemson’s, Tech could open up the passing game more Saturday.

The run/pass balance may inform how Collins and Patenaude split time with quarterbacks Tobias Oliver, Lucas Johnson and James Graham. Against Clemson, Oliver played 10 possessions, Johnson one and Graham three. All three are expected to play against the Bulls. Graham’s showing against Clemson – 4-for-7 for 72 yards and a touchdown – may have earned him more time.

2. Better showing against the run

Clemson punished the Jackets with 411 rushing yards, which broke the Tech record for most rushing yards allowed in an ACC game and was 20 yards shy of Tech’s modern-era record. It was a credit to Clemson’s veteran offensive line and standout running back Travis Etienne and also a reflection on Tech’s inexperience on the line and at linebacker.

Defensive coordinator Andrew Thacker used 28 players for at least 10 snaps on defense, but only three of them were seniors, and the unit has only three returning starters. The field was rife with players getting their first significant playing time.

Tech’s play stands to improve as young defensive linemen such as T.K. Chimedza, Justice Dingle, Kelton Dawson and Chico Bennett gain more familiarity and comfort. Also, Saturday’s game figures to be more of an even match, although South Florida returns four starters on the offensive line and has a productive running back in Jordan Cronkrite.

Thacker said it was imperative to be more aggressive in the interior of the defense, which is where Clemson was often able to run with success.

3. Making plays on special teams

Tech’s loss last year to South Florida was punctuated by Terrence Horne’s touchdown returns on consecutive kickoffs, special-teams failures that were repeated (though not to that extent) throughout the season. With Collins introducing his approach to special teams – players have to be able to contribute on special teams in order to play offense or defense – Tech was effective on two of three kickoffs, letting the first return out to the Clemson 35 but keeping the other two at the 25 or inside.

With Pressley Harvin launching bombs, the punt team was on point, save one unlucky touchback, but punt returner Juanyeh Thomas had a critical lost fumble that led to Clemson’s first touchdown. On Tech’s three kickoff returns (the other six were touchbacks), the Jackets were not very effective at impeding the Tigers, leading to tackles at the 14-, 16- and 10-yard lines. Freshman Ahmarean Brown took the last two returns in place of Thomas.

There’s definitely room for improvement.

4. Can South Florida revive?

South Florida is not in a good way. After starting last season 7-0, including a win over the Jackets, the Bulls lost their final six games of the season and then lost the season opener at home to Wisconsin by a 49-0 count.

In that game, South Florida turned the ball over three times and was penalized nine times. Coach Charlie Strong called it a “very disappointing, very embarrassing loss.”

The conditions would seem prime for Tech to take control of the game early and subdue a team that has known plenty of struggle.

South Florida does have the opportunity to present the Jackets defense with a curveball, as Tech coaches were not entirely sure how new Bulls offensive coordinator Kerwin Bell would try to attack the Jackets. Bell, a former Florida quarterback, led Valdosta State to the Division II national championship last year before accepting a job on Strong’s staff in January.

5. Welcome home

Long before he was a graduate assistant, tight ends coach and director of player personnel, Collins came to Bobby Dodd Stadium as a child on Thanksgiving Day to watch the Tech and UGA junior varsity teams play, a tradition that stretched from 1933-93.

“I would sit up there in the top of our bleachers and watch the game, then we’d go have Thanksgiving dinner,” Collins said Tuesday, pointing out the seats from the Letterwinners Suite, where he gave his weekly news conference.

It will be interesting to see to what degree the excitement that Collins has stoked in the Jackets fan base is reflected in attendance. The attendance figures for Tech’s past five home openers (all against FCS teams) – 45,403 (Wofford), 49,196 (Alcorn State), 49,992 (Mercer), 50,161 (Jacksonville State), 39,719 (Alcorn State).

The opener also will serve as the team’s annual white-out.

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