Georgia Tech running back Jordan Mason (27) runs with the ball in the second half at Memorial Stadium on the Clemson University campus in Clemson, S.C. on Thursday, August 29, 2019. Clemson won 52-14 over the Georgia Tech. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

What Georgia Tech needs to improve on in Week 2

When Georgia Tech’s night at Clemson had ended, coach Geoff Collins made mention of a priority before the Yellow Jackets played their next game.

Tech would improve, Collins said, as coaches determined “exactly what (the players) do really well, letting them do those things.”

The 52-14 loss to Clemson on Aug. 29 was instructive to that end, as it provided an early readout on which Jackets impressed, what areas of the team looked capable and what needed more attention in preparation for Saturday’s home opener against South Florida.

Tech’s secondary was competitive against Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence, already thought to be a future first overall draft pick. Facing disguised coverages as well as the excellent play of cornerback Tre Swilling, Lawrence was 13-for-23 passing for 168 yards, with a touchdown and two interceptions. His passing efficiency rating (114.8) was the lowest of his career.

“I was really pleased with how we held up,” defensive coordinator Andrew Thacker said. “Obviously, Tre probably got the most shine and the most notoriety with the interception and the pass breakup, but we really held up on the perimeter, which allows us to do more structurally and schematically going forward.”

On the flip side, the run defense was overpowered by Clemson, which ran 49 times for 411 yards and five touchdowns, including running back Travis Etienne’s 90-yard touchdown sprint that resulted from a breakdown along the defensive line.

South Florida returns four starters on its offensive line and undoubtedly took a long look at how Clemson was able to run against the Jackets. Thacker spoke with respect for running back Jordan Cronkrite, who ran for 1,121 yards last season, although Wisconsin held him to nine yards on six carries in the Badgers’ season-opening 49-0 win Friday.

“Obviously, we’ve got to stop the run, and we’ve got to be more aggressive in the interior, and that’s what South Florida does best, so that’s what we will take away this week to start,” Thacker said.

Keeping tabs on quarterback Blake Barnett will be a priority, as Lawrence was able to hurt the Jackets three times on the run. He picked up one touchdown and two first downs on two option keepers and a scramble. A year ago, Barnett, like Lawrence a pro-style quarterback, ran for a career-high 86 yards against the Jackets.

Effort was not an issue, coaches said. But attention to detail was at times a problem, and both Thacker and Collins dwelt on the 90-yard run by Etienne, when an apparent mix-up in assignments between end Kelton Dawson and tackle Brentavious Glanton opened up a wide lane for Etienne. Collins called it a matter of “doing your job, trusting your teammates to do theirs.”

On offense against Clemson, offensive coordinator Dave Patenaude made the decision to go with a game plan heavy on the run in part because the run game was a strength with quarterback Tobias Oliver but also because of concerns about how the offensive line would hold up in the pass rush.

Tech had a more even run-pass balance in the second half, and also gave up two sacks after surrendering one in the first half. If Tech opens it up more Saturday, that facet will get a challenge. Patenaude said that Oliver made good decisions with the ball but was not as effective in making accurate deliveries. Who Tech will start at quarterback remains uncertain, at least publicly, but whoever it is, being more efficient with the passing game will be paramount.

Patenaude also liked the way that the offensive line was getting push on Clemson, particularly considering the Tigers’ penchant for showing different fronts.

“Just for our guys to be on the right guys and be able to move them and do the communication piece that we’ve talked about was really encouraging,” Patenaude said.

Running back Jordan Mason proved himself, gaining 72 rushing yards and running hard.

“His ability to break tackles on (Thursday) against really, really good players was really encouraging,” Patenaude said. “He’s a big guy, he’s got very good foot quickness and he sees the play well.”

Slot receiver Ahmarean Brown made good on the promise he showed in practices, blowing by safety K’Von Wallace for a 28-yard touchdown reception from quarterback James Graham.

“We knew he could really go, but can you do it when the lights are on?” Patenaude said.

Left guard Mikey Minihan was among players getting his first extended playing time who acquitted himself well. Minihan started and won the praise of Collins and Patenaude.

“He played tremendous,” Patenaude said.

It will be a different type of opponent for Tech on Saturday – the Jackets are favored by six points after being a 37-point underdog to Clemson. But, for a team in transition, solving the opponent’s challenges might not be as important as making progress.

“There’s an internal drive that we have to build this culture, to every day battle and compete to get better every single day,” Collins said. “And that doesn’t change regardless of who you’re playing, regardless of what the scoreboard is, regardless of the situation.”

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