As well as any facet of the game, a second-quarter drive might have best told the story of Tech’s struggle to defend against Ole Miss’ play-to-play speed and physical superiority. There was 7:34 remaining in the half when Ole Miss started a drive at its 23-yard line. The Rebels led 14-0, the game’s outcome still in doubt. They had already run 28 plays to that point on a warm afternoon.
The Rebels then proceeded to run their first three plays in a little more than 45 seconds of real time, the third converting a first down on a short pass that exploited a blitz by linebacker Ayinde Eley. Ole Miss players jogged into place for the next snap. When center Caleb Warren snapped the ball, less than six seconds had elapsed after the umpire had put the ball down for the first-down play.
At the snap, defensive tackle Jason Moore had yet to take his four-point stance, linebacker Charlie Thomas was turned to Eley and defensive end Noah Collins was moving into position. Left guard Nick Broeker drove defensive end Keion White out of the way to create a huge crease for running back Quinshon Judkins, who wasn’t touched until cornerback Zamari Walton pushed him out of bounds for a 36-yard gain. Out of the play and perhaps physically taxed, Thomas could not muster a sprint in pursuit.
“Going up against a tempo team, it taps into your mental,” cornerback Myles Sims said. “To be real, if your mind isn’t there, your body will follow. That comes along with conditioning and being able to have a quick turnover rate. When you’re going up against a tempo team, it’s all about who can gain their wind the fastest. That’s pretty much it.”
After the 36-yard gain, defensive coordinator Andrew Thacker rotated White out before the next play and then the tackles and Collins before the next. (With three timeouts remaining, less than seven minutes to play in the half and possibly the game hanging in the balance, a timeout would have been an unconventional but perhaps helpful call.) On the sixth play of the drive, running back Zach Evans shot through a gaping hole created by the right side of the Ole Miss line on his way to the end zone for a 26-yard touchdown run in which he wasn’t touched just past the line of scrimmage for a 20-0 lead, soon to be 21-0.
Fatigued, overpowered and outschemed, Tech gave up 42 points (the 14th 40-point game of Collins’ 37-game tenure, all losses), 31 first downs (one every 2.6 plays) and 547 yards to Ole Miss. They attempted 19 passes and ran 62 times.
After last season, Collins committed to investing more of his time and expertise to assisting Thacker. Saturday, the benefit of that contribution was not apparent.
The offensive line did not hold up and was often unable to protect quarterback Jeff Sims, leading to the Rebels’ seven sacks, the most allowed in a game in Collins’ tenure. Rebels defensive linemen quickly won one-on-one matchups, often leaving Sims little chance to even get rid of the ball. In its first two games, against Troy and FCS Central Arkansas, Ole Miss averaged one sack for every 13.2 opponent throws. Saturday, it was a sack every 4.6 pass attempts.
In the run game, Tech’s line had difficulty dislodging Ole Miss’ front, leaving the Jackets’ running backs little room to maneuver. Even erasing the 45 yards on sacks, Tech ran 27 times for 62 yards, and 22 of those were gained on Tech’s last drive of the game. It was a line that could not consistently compete with Ole Miss’ size, strength and skill, not a shock given Tech’s inexperience and youth along its front. But it’s also a group that line coach Brent Key endorsed in the preseason, saying he had “100% confidence” in the line’s ability to battle and contribute to a winning team.
With his team counting on him, Sims could not deliver, his poise in the pocket perhaps undone by the constant pressure. He missed targets by a wide margin and rushed throws. He finished 18-for-32 for 161 yards.
Tech averaged 3.6 yards per play against Clemson and 3.2 against Ole Miss. It’s true that both appear to have elite defenses. However, Troy and FCS Central Arkansas both had higher per-play averages against Ole Miss than did the Jackets, and the same holds true for Furman and Louisiana Tech against Clemson.
At the risk of belaboring the point, that’s four offenses from lesser-resourced teams with talent presumably inferior to Tech’s and all playing as visitors, unlike Tech, which was the home team for both games.
Of all the plays in the game, perhaps the one most galling to Tech fans and most representative of the team’s poor preparation was the blocked punt early in the first quarter. It was the third blocked punt that the Jackets have allowed this season following two in the loss to Clemson. Last season, 122 out of 130 FBS teams were able to make it through their entire seasons with two blocked punts or fewer.
Collins, who oversees punt-team drills in practice, said there was supposed to be a motion prior to the snap to help protect punter David Shanahan, but that it didn’t happen.
“So that’s completely on me,” Collins said. “Something we’ve worked on and didn’t get it done, so that’s a failure in execution and that falls on me.”
What is worse is that Ole Miss wasn’t even trying to block the punt.
“We were actually in a ‘punt safe’ and (Cedric Johnson) just made a great play,” said Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin, referring to a scheme designed to protect against a fake punt.
Later in the first quarter, Tech was called for illegal substitution when Ole Miss was punting, an unforced pre-snap penalty that moved the Rebels into field-goal position. Fortunately for the Jackets, the attempt failed.
Beyond that, energy and intensity may have been lacking. The slow start called to mind Tech’s falling behind 14-7 to Western Carolina a week ago.
“We’ve got to play harder, and we’ve got to come out with more energy,” running back Dontae Smith said.
Ole Miss appeared to be the tougher and more energized team, a puzzling situation given that Tech’s coaching staff is in a fight to stay employed and the team had made talk of its improved chemistry and accountability. The most ardent Collins supporter might assert that Saturday’s result was a perfect storm of a peaking opponent and a horrendous off day for the Jackets, but it would be easy to counter that the 42-0 score fits into a larger pattern of Tech losing eight consecutive games to FBS opponents, the past four of which (against top-notch competition) have resulted in a cumulative score of 183-10.
After the game, Collins was as humble in acknowledging his team’s shortcomings, both in the game and this season, as he has ever been in his tenure. He did not attempt to deflect or sugarcoat and accepted full responsibility.
“I thought we were prepared, I thought we had a good plan, I thought we were ready to handle any adversity that showed,” he said. “But I don’t know if there’s any positives to take out of that, offensively, defensively or special teams.”
“We cannot do that,” Collins said of the blocked punt. “Execution error, obviously that falls on me.”
“The progression has not gone as quickly as we wanted it to,” Collins said. “The results have not shown, especially (regarding the 183-10 cumulative score in the past four games against Power Five competition). But there’s still work to do. These young men that are in this program are amazing. They love this institution. I love this institution. There’s nobody that’s more committed to it than me.”
Patience Veitch is an 18-year-old diehard Jackets fan whose unabashedly pro-Tech Twitter account has gained her a following that includes several Tech coaches, players and parents of players. In a postgame tweet, she acknowledged that even she had reached her limit, writing that she had never been more depressed as a Tech fan. (Older fans with a significantly longer history of disappointing Jackets teams expressed similar sentiments.)
“I know I’m always positive and supportive,” she tweeted. “I love this TEAM. But I’ve never been more depressed as a GT fan. Something’s gotta give. This is getting old week after week.”
The loss could mean that Saturday’s game at Central Florida (4 p.m., ESPNU) has substantial meaning for Collins. Should the Jackets put on a performance against the Knights similar to their effort against Ole Miss, it could well raise the pressure on athletic director Todd Stansbury and institute President Angel Cabrera to an untenable point. (Stansbury declined a request for comment after the game Saturday.)
It’s entirely conceivable, too, that Stansbury’s standing is also in jeopardy, as he not only hired Collins but then affirmed him as “my guy” near the end of last season.
The world offers far graver issues, but in this corner of the sporting world, this one has become impossible to ignore.