The Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets line up against the South Florida Bulls during a game Sept. 8, 2018, at Raymond James Stadium on in Tampa, Fla.
Photo: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
Photo: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

What’s on the line as Georgia Tech preps for Pittsburgh

Georgia Tech quarterback TaQuon Marshall’s tone following Saturday’s loss to South Florida was disappointed but not discouraged.

“It would be great to be 2-0, but we’re 1-1 going into ACC play next week,” he said. “And at the end of the day, I was telling Qua (Searcy), ‘If we’re in Charlotte in December (for the ACC championship game), then we won’t even be thinking about this game.’”

The point holds. Tech’s goal is to win the Coastal Division and the conference title. Saturday’s loss has no bearing on those aims of the Yellow Jackets. That starts Saturday with their ACC opener at Pittsburgh, a team that the Jackets have enjoyed considerable success moving the ball against in their three games against coach Pat Narduzzi (but have lost two of them).

If Tech can apply the lessons from its 49-38 loss to USF, the defeat will not have been entirely in vain. A small problem is that there was no shortage of lessons.

The kickoff coverage, which gave up touchdowns on back-to-back kickoffs in the first quarter, has to improve (and it bears mention that it improved in-game after those two blown plays).

“They blocked the fool out of our guys,” Jackets coach Paul Johnson said.

Pitt has a dangerous returner in Maurice Ffrench, who returned a kickoff for a touchdown in the Panthers’ opener.

The defense, which was aggressive in getting upfield to pressure the quarterback, needs to improve at keeping quarterbacks in the pocket. USF quarterback Blake Barnett ran 16 times for 91 yards, many of the runs on scrambles as the pocket broke down. Whether by design or necessity, Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett can be productive on the run.

“If people stay in their rush lanes and be where they’re supposed to be, then it’s not as easy to pull it down and run,” Johnson said.

Open-field tackling could have been better. Safety Malik Rivera’s failure to bring down wide receiver Terrence Horne on a swing pass enabled him to score on a second-and-goal play in the fourth quarter was perhaps the most glaring of the Jackets’ missed tackles.

The offense gained 602 yards, just the sixth time in Johnson’s tenure that the Jackets cleared the 600-yard threshold against an FBS opponent. They did so despite missing starting B-back KirVonte Benson for the final three quarters and Marshall for two full possessions and parts of two others.

Tech-Clemson is a non-noon kickoff.

Paul Johnson blasts targeting calls

Johnson explains Jackets’ lapses in loss to South Florida

However, turnovers on back-to-back possessions in the fourth quarter (a fumble by Searcy and an interception by Marshall) doomed Tech as it surrendered a 10-point fourth-quarter lead. It was the fifth time since the start of the 2017 season that Tech lost a game in which it led by 10 points or more. Johnson said it was “just sickening” to watch the game video of the loss to USF and see missed opportunities.

“I don’t think confidence is a problem,” Johnson said. “It might be too much of it. It seems like every time we make a play, we want to celebrate. You’ve got to close out the games.”

There are some fixes. Johnson said that the offensive line needs to rotate more to keep players fresh. He suggested that perhaps the defense was rotating players too frequently, putting freshmen on the field in critical moments. The kickoff coverage team had five freshmen on the field for the first return for a touchdown and four for the second, which Johnson said was too many.

There are other issues whose answers don’t seem readily evident. The Jackets have now lost five consecutive games on the road and also still seem to have trouble coming up with the plays necessary to avoid the come-from-ahead losses. Tech’s defense, in its first year with coordinator Nate Woody, may continue to experience growing pains, as did Woody’s first defense at Appalachian State, his previous employer.

While Tech may be the better team, the Panthers are likely feeling the same urgency to start ACC play with a win after a 51-6 loss to No. 11 Penn State.

Tech can clean up a lot of the problems from Saturday. If it can’t address enough of them, however, there’s a possibility that a loss to the Panthers could be destabilizing. Especially with No. 2 Clemson to follow, that would be problematic. While Tech recovered from its season-opening loss to Tennessee a year ago, the 25-24 defeat to Miami knocked the Jackets off balance.

A win can set the Jackets back on their feet. A loss, for the simple reasons of Tech’s rigorous schedule and a clearer valuation of the team’s ability to win, would raise questions about the Jackets’ chances of making a bowl game of note, or a bowl game at all.

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