Tech needed to be near perfect to have a chance against Georgia. It was not. Among the most obvious mistakes was tight end Dylan Leonard’s dropped pass on a first-and-10 of Tech’s second drive with the Jackets ahead 7-0. It appeared the play could have gone for at least 20 yards from the Tech 41-yard line, but Leonard couldn’t secure the pass from quarterback Zach Gibson.
It wasn’t the only error, though, even in that specific series. Two plays later on third-and-10, a failure to handle a Georgia line stunt allowed pressure to get to Gibson, resulting in an incompletion to bring on the punt team. On the punt, Sirad Bryant inexplicably launched himself for a helmet-to-helmet hit against a UGA player he had put on the ground, resulting in a disqualification and giving the Bulldogs a 15-yard head start on a drive that resulted in a 30-yard field goal for Georgia.
In the second quarter, the Jackets failed to cover a punt effectively, helping UGA returner Ladd McConkey break a 39-yard return, his career long. It didn’t result in a score but helped Georgia flip the field. After the Bulldogs punted, Tech got the ball back on its 2-yard line with 1:34 left in the half. The Jackets moved the ball 59 yards – a successful drive considering they did so against possibly the most unyielding defense in FBS – but it wasn’t far enough to get into field-goal range.
A third-quarter offside penalty on defensive end Kyle Kennard may have moved the Bulldogs into field-goal territory for a successful 50-yard try. The mishandled low punt snap to punter David Shanahan and the lost fumble by running back Jamie Felix on successive drives in the third quarter that gave Georgia the ball on the Tech 17 and 25, respectively, were overwhelming errors.
“You’re looking at two consecutive series where the ball, field position-wise, never really crossed the (Tech) 30,” Key said. “We’re playing with one hand tied behind our back with that.”
No mistake on its own changed the game’s outcome – some were more costly than others – and it’s likely Georgia would have won even against a clean performance. But together, they made the task almost impossible.
Defense rises, falls
Playing a tempo of limited possessions, the Jackets defense gave up 153 yards in the first two quarters on 26 plays. Tech allowed Georgia to get loose for a play of 20-plus yards only once, a 45-yard run by running back Kenny McIntosh through the middle of the Jackets defense.
Giving up 10 points and 153 yards in the first two quarters to an offense ranked 11th in FBS in scoring (38.4 points per game) and seventh in total offense (496.3 yards per game) was about as much as defensive coordinator Andrew Thacker could have asked for out of his group. Through 11 games, the Bulldogs had averaged 21.3 points in the first half.
“It wasn’t too much,” said linebacker Ayinde Eley, who led the Jackets with 11 tackles and forced a fumble. “We were just lining up, executing our job and tackling the ball.”
One of the plays of the half was made by nickel back Rodney Shelley, playing in place of the injured K.J. Wallace. On a third-and-goal from the Tech 12 in the first quarter, Shelley defended All-American tight end Brock Bowers one-on-one, rising up with him on a throw from quarterback Stetson Bennett into the end zone and preventing a touchdown. (With the incompletion, Tech was able to decline an offensive pass-interference penalty called for a pick route, putting Georgia in position to settle for a field goal.)
Another key play was on a third-and-4 from the Tech 28 with just under two minutes left in the half. Defensive end Keion White fought off a block while defensive tackle Akelo Stone pushed into the backfield, freeing Eley and White to combine on a stop limiting running back Kenny Milton to a 2-yard gain. When Bowers’ end-around run on fourth-and-2 was wiped out by an offensive facemask penalty, Georgia had to punt.
However, in the second half, adverse starting field position, the limitations of the Tech offense and Georgia’s offensive prowess took their toll. Tech’s offense ran 15 plays in its first four possessions of the half, giving up the ball twice on downs (once on a botched punt play) and once on a fumble, all three within 51 yards of Tech’s end zone with two of them inside the Tech 30. (The other was a well-executed 65-yard punt by Shanahan that was downed at the UGA 1-yard line.)
The Tech offense was not only not staying on the field long but also putting the defense in jeopardizing situations. With considerable assistance, the Bulldogs scored 27 points in their five possessions within the first 19 minutes of the second half to take a 37-10 lead.
On Georgia’s final two scoring drives of the day, both for touchdowns, the Jackets gave up a 78-yard pass and a 44-yard run, the latter for a touchdown. After a 10-point, 153-yard first half, the Bulldogs finished with a 27-point, 253-yard second.
“Defensively, I thought they did an outstanding job early on in the game as far as working to take away the explosives, take away the explosive pass from them,” Key said. “And then as the game went on, we started to wear down a little bit and had some gap issues on a couple plays and got caught in a blitz coverage down the sideline on one, but I thought ‘Thack’ did a really good job preparing those guys for the football game.”
After two forgettable games (against Virginia and Florida State, in case you’ve actually forgotten), Gibson put those behind him with better performances against North Carolina and Georgia.
Splitting time again with Taisun Phommachanh, Gibson made plays with his arm and his legs to lead the Jackets to their first-possession touchdown, the first that Georgia had allowed this season in the first quarter. Perhaps the biggest was a fourth-and-9 completion on the opening drive, when the line held up against a five-man blitz and gave Gibson the time to launch a rainbow for wide receiver Nate McCollum to run under for a 34-yard reception. Near the end of the first half, with running back Dontae Smith picking up a corner blitz, Gibson threw from just outside the end zone and dropped in an on-target throw to receiver E.J. Jenkins for a 41-yard pass play, Gibson’s season long.
Under pressure often against one of the top defenses in the country, Gibson wasn’t perfect, but he completed 19 of 35 passes for 191 yards with no touchdowns and no interceptions.
“We executed on the first drive and just couldn’t sustain after that,” Gibson said. “It’s unfortunate, because the defense played lights out, and this one’s on the offense, for sure.”
Gibson’s completion percentage, yards-per-attempt average and total passing yards closely matched Georgia’s defensive season averages.
“They’re fast up front,” Gibson said. “That was a good front seven that we played (Saturday). Hat’s off to them, they had a good game plan going in.”
In helping lead the Jackets to an upset over then-No. 13 North Carolina last week and holding his own against UGA, it was a far better showing than his play against Virginia and Florida State, performances that drew heavy criticism from fans on social media. He said the improvement was due to getting more time in practice and game experience.
“I wasn’t really listening to what fans were saying,” Gibson said. “Obviously, I heard what they said, but that wasn’t my focus. My focus was just to keep working day to day and just keep getting better.”
Linebacker Charlie Thomas, Eley and McCollum completed impressive statistical seasons with the final regular-season game in Athens. (It remains possible that Tech could play in a bowl game as a 5-7 team.)
McCollum caught six passes for 65 yards to finish with 60 catches for the season despite missing one game. The catch total is fifth in the ACC , the most catches in a season for a Tech player since Calvin Johnson in 2006 (76) and the seventh most in team history.
With 11 tackles Saturday, Eley made 118 tackles this season, the most by a Jackets defender since P.J. Davis in 2014 (119 in 14 games). Eley, Davis and Julian Burnett (120 in 2011) are the only three Tech players since 2000 to make at least 118 tackles in a season.
Making eight tackles Saturday, Thomas finished with 112 tackles, fourth most since 2000 behind Burnett, Davis and Eley. He reached his total despite missing five full quarters sitting out targeting suspensions.
Playing in his school-record 58th career game, wide receiver Malachi Carter reached 1,400 receiving yards in his career, becoming the 14th player to reach that plateau. His only catch was a 24-yard touchdown catch off a halfback pass from Dontae Smith in the only pass attempt of his career. Smith is now the owner of a career passing efficiency rating of 631.6.
“We threw that play in earlier this week,” Carter said. “We were real confident in that particular play, have run it plenty of times, so we were just hoping we could catch them really drifting over and committing on the run. And then it was at the end of the game, we saw we had our opportunity. (Offensive coordinator Chip Long) called it, threw me in there and we executed.”
Interim tenure closes
In his last game as interim coach, Key went out by playing aggressively and helping his team get off to a strong start, leading 7-0 and being down 13-7 to the No. 1 team in the country more than halfway through the third quarter. By comparison, No. 8 Tennessee trailed 24-6 and No. 15 Oregon was down 35-3. The Jackets played together and with effort.
“Did we play hard? Yes, we did, we played really hard,” Key said. “Were our guys extremely dialed in? Yes, we had a good plan of attack, yes we had a good overall plan. We were able to come out on top? No.”
There is little denying the impact that Key had on the team, which went 4-4 under his leadership, including the two road wins over Top 25 teams.
“Him being the head coach here right now, we don’t even see the interim tag because we’re just so behind Key since the moment he became the head coach,” Carter said. “Just the whole team has been riding behind him. You can see the trust in him, you can see the trust that he has in us. And because of that, we just mesh, and you saw a little bit of a change throughout the season in the team in the way we performed and execute.”
Key’s fate is in the hands of athletic director J Batt.
“Personally, I think coach Key has done an amazing job with how quickly he has been able to turn the program around,” Marcus Brooks, father of safety LaMiles Brooks, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution after the game. “Honestly, for me, he’s the perfect fit. He’s got the Tech pedigree, he understands the players and he’s able to draw out of them what’s necessary to be successful.”