Georgia Tech’s woes play out in front of national audience

Notre Dame's Kyren Williams (23) runs past Georgia Tech's Zamari Walton (7) for a touchdown during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021, in South Bend, Ind. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)
Caption
Notre Dame's Kyren Williams (23) runs past Georgia Tech's Zamari Walton (7) for a touchdown during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021, in South Bend, Ind. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

Credit: Darron Cummings

Credit: Darron Cummings

Of all the games not to be on Bally Sports South, this had to be the one.

Rather than being televised on the hard-to-find cable network (or Bally Sports Southeast) for the fourth week in a row, Georgia Tech had the misfortune of having its 55-0 loss to No. 8 Notre Dame broadcast nationwide on NBC, its misplays dissected by future hall-of-famer Drew Brees. In South Bend, Ind., the Yellow Jackets lost their fifth game in a row, tying for the longest losing streak since 1994, in dropping to 3-8. The Fighting Irish improved to 10-1 and a staggering 28-1 against the ACC since 2017 with dominance that far exceeded the previous 28.

Five takeaways from the game:

Forgettable day for Jordan Yates

It was a rough afternoon for quarterback Jordan Yates. Elevated into the starting lineup with starter Jeff Sims not available, Yates took a pounding from the Notre Dame defense, which delivered several body shots at him both in and out of the pocket.

Further, Yates had virtually no choice but to stay in and accept the punishment. Not only was Sims unavailable, but so was third-stringer Trad Beatty, which made freshman Chayden Peery the likely next quarterback off the bench. Peery has not played a snap this season and has spent the season as the scout team quarterback. He would have been ill-prepared to sub for Yates.

Yates also made a mistake that had severe consequences when, under heavy pressure, he tried to throw to running back Jahmyr Gibbs. Instead threw right at linebacker Jack Kiser, who returned the interception 43 yards for a touchdown and a 10-0 lead for the Irish less than five minutes into the game. In the third quarter, with the game long out of reach, Yates scrambled away from pressure and fumbled as he tried to throw the ball away while falling, a turnover that also was returned for a touchdown, this time 70 yards by defensive end Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa.

“First and foremost, I’ve got to take better care of the ball, no matter what the situation is,” Yates said. “You’ve got to hold onto it. That’s the first thing on offense, is to take care of it.”

Still, Yates was unbowed. He made throw after throw despite the beating he was taking and in the third quarter nearly scored on a 54-yard run that began as a scramble away from pressure. It was by far Tech’s longest play from scrimmage.

“Nobody feels great about this, but I think our guys didn’t quit,” Yates said. “I know up front, we didn’t quit. I know the receivers didn’t quit, the other side of the ball didn’t quit. I think that’s something you can bank on, but going forward, we’ve just got to be better at executing and going forward we will be.”

Jackets defense lacking again

The Tech defense started with some hope, but then fell apart. After the Jackets gave up a 51-yard kickoff return to start the game – the longest they’ve allowed this season by far – and then Notre Dame quarterbackk Jack Coan hit a 38-yard pass play on the first play, Tech bowed up with sacks by linebacker Quez Jackson and defensive end Jordan Domineck, leading to a field goal.

But the play steadily worsened. When the defense took the field next, Notre Dame already led 10-0 after Yates’ interception returned for a touchdown and then a three-and-out by the Tech offense.

“We started out fast, tried to come up with the same intensity next drive, and we didn’t,” safety Juanyeh Thomas said.

Over the remaining five Notre Dame series of the half, all touchdown drives of at least 60 yards, the Irish faced a total of five third downs, none longer than third-and-5. They picked up four and converted a fourth-and-2 on the other.

After the interception returned for the touchdown, “we weren’t able to respond, really, for the rest of the first half,” coach Geoff Collins said. “That was disappointing to see, and we’ve got to find a way to get it right.”

In his first career start – in place of linebacker Ayinde Eley, who sat out the first half after being penalized for targeting in last Saturday’s game against Boston College – linebacker Trenilyas Tatum struggled, although that was far from the only problem. (Besides Eley’s suspension for the first two quarters, cornerback Tobias Oliver, defensive end Jared Ivey, nickel back Wesley Walker, kicker Brent Cimaglia and Sims were not available. They were all significant absences, though not the difference in the outcome.) The Jackets had difficulty pressuring Coan, were blocked at the point of attack on run plays and were subject to Coan’s pinpoint passing. Coverage was also lacking, and Irish ball carriers frequently fell forward when getting brought down, evidence of what Collins called the team being “out-physicalled.”

Notre Dame entered the game averaging 32.3 points and 396.9 yards per game. The Irish were up 45-0 with 354 yards at the half. In Tech’s five-game losing streak, four of the opponents, including Notre Dame, have achieved season highs in yards-per-play at the Jackets’ expense.

Offensive line struggles against Irish front

Tech’s offensive line has been struggling to stay healthy. William Lay started at left guard in Paula Vaipulu’s place. Center Mikey Minihan, who has his share of physical ailments, had to temporarily leave the game. Right tackle Jordan Williams has dealt with a leg injury but played.

Further, Notre Dame’s defensive line is experienced and effective. The Jackets had difficulty slowing down defensive end Isaiah Foskey (three tackles, one sack, two forced fumbles, two quarterback hurries). It’s a group that can take its share of credit for the team not having allowed a touchdown in three consecutive games.

That doesn’t fully explain the mismatch, however. The offensive line was frequently ineffective, particularly in trying to protect Yates. Linemen were beaten one-on-one or were unable to handle blitzes throughout the afternoon, leaving Irish defenders to take free runs at Yates, who was sacked six times. In the run game, Tech ran 35 times for 128 yards, although 54 of them were gained on Yates’ scramble.

“They executed very well, and we’ve got to execute better,” right guard Ryan Johnson said. “We’ve got to do our job, make our assignments, and they executed, we didn’t. That’s what it boils down to.”

A juggernaut pays a visit to Grant Field

Given the thrashing that Notre Dame delivered to the Jackets, it was easy to wonder what sort of fate awaits them this Saturday at Bobby Dodd Stadium, when No. 1 Georgia arrives.

The Irish defense was formidable, but still probably not approaching the might of the Bulldogs’ unit, which going into the weekend’s games was first in FBS in scoring defense and second in total defense. The significant majority of the stadium will almost certainly be wearing red, as Tech fans have shown decreasing desire to support the Jackets.

Collins may face the challenge of his tenure to get his team physically and mentally ready to play the Bulldogs. Collins said that, after the game, his team bristled with “the right amount of anger” over its performance. However, Collins also said that players had the same level of anger after losing to Boston College, which evidently did not serve them very well.

“Just got to come back and regroup and put another week of prep to get ready for a great Georgia team,” Collins said.

While it would seem that UGA coach Kirby Smart’s main priority against the Jackets would be winning and advancing to the SEC championship game against No. 2 Alabama without injury or overly taxed, the Bulldogs appear entirely capable of replicating – or exceeding – Tech’s 55-point defeat in South Bend.

Tech fans might take hope in Thomas’ suggestion that the Jackets will come out next Saturday like a cornered animal.

Tough time to be a Tech fan

As Irish fans and students lingered on the field after the game reveling in their team’s success, Notre Dame stood in stark contrast to Tech on Saturday for no shortage of reasons. Irish coach Brian Kelly’s team has achieved the elite status that Collins has envisioned for the Jackets, making two College Football Playoff appearances in the past three seasons and contending for a third this season. Tech, meanwhile, appears headed for its third consecutive three-win season.

After the game, Kelly was asked about what was going through his mind as his team ran roughshod over the Jackets in the first half. He spoke of the ongoing process of building a team through a season and constantly trying to improve.

“That process has put us in a position where today we’ve seen that we have grown as a football team,” he said. “So I’m watching this football team out there that looks nothing like it did back when we played Toledo (a come-from-behind 32-29 win in the second week of the season). So that’s growth. That’s coaching. That’s players understanding how they needed to grow as well.”

In Collins’ first two seasons, a good case could be made that the Jackets were better at season’s end than at the start. And, as Collins has contended often, the fact that Tech has lost close games this year after losing to the same teams by wider margins previously is a show of clear progress. (That argument won’t quite hold up with Saturday’s game, as the Irish beat the Jackets 31-13 last season.)

In the case of the 2021 team, Collins’ most experienced and the one expected to be his best, the in-season progress that Kelly spoke of is a much more difficult argument to make as Tech’s losing streak now stands at five games. The defense has seemingly fallen apart. Ill-timed penalties continue to sabotage the team. The team suffers from procedural errors like incurring a delay-of-game penalty one play after a false start and wider issues such as the fact that a team whose coach preaches culture and effort didn’t respond to challenge two weeks in a row. The sum of flaws has assuredly infuriated fans and, perhaps more significantly, donors.

While winning next season would solve just about everything, barring a miracle upset against Georgia, Collins and athletic director Todd Stansbury face heavy pressure to make changes to the coaching staff whether they want to or not – Stansbury told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution prior to the Boston College game that “my whole thing with Geoff is, stick to the plan.”

And even if changes do happen – they seem inevitable now – fans’ hope and belief in Collins has eroded. There are far greater concerns in the world, but for all who care about Tech’s football team, it is a gloomy hour.

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